Well, we all knew it was coming, didn't we? Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun Times for nearly fifty years, passed away today at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. A few days ago he posted an announcement to his blog that he was taking a "leave of presence," reducing his workload significantly after discovering that his cancer had returned. I'm glad he got to say goodbye, even if it wasn't meant to be such a final one.
To say that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had a great influence on my development as a movie fan is a massive understatement. It was thanks to years of watching "Siskel & Ebert" every Sunday evening before "60 Minutes" that I understood that you could discuss films seriously, as pieces of art as opposed to entertainment. Of course, they clearly enjoyed the films they reviewed, and Ebert was always the one who was more inclined to stick up for the mainstream blockbusters, the genre pictures, and the oddball efforts. Ebert was, after all, the screenwriter of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," directed by the supreme 70s schlockmeister, Russ Meyer.
I followed the program up to the bitter end, through the years with Richard Roeper, through the idiot Bens, and through the brief return to form with Michael Phillips and A.O.Scott before it was finally cancelled for good. During grad school I'd even stay up every weekend to watch it in the post-midnight timeslot where the local ABC affiliate had banished it. Fortunately, episodes went online and it was easier to access. A new version of "At the Movies" came along on PBS a few years later with other hosts, but I lost track of it after a few months, and it didn't last much longer after that. I still see movie ads sometimes and find myself expecting to see the once ubiquitous "two thumbs up!" quote pop up somewhere. People used to parody that line to death, but I haven't heard it in years.
I didn't have regular access to Ebert's written reviews for the Sun Times until the internet came along, and soon I became a regular reader, not just of the reviews, but of his columns, the Q&As, the letters, the interviews, festival reports, awards commentary, and much more. His writing was so strong, so personable, so funny, and so inviting. Even after I stopped visiting the site regularly, I still kept up with this blog as best I could. And when I first started writing reviews myself, it was his work I modeled myself after. How long should a movie review be? I checked his stuff and noted that he got the job done in 600-700 words per review. I also noted that he would revisit and write new reviews for older, beloved films. And he would write opinion pieces, simply because he had an opinion that he felt should be shared. And once in a while, he would change his mind.
I so admire the relationship that he had with his readers, the dialogues and discussions that he would have, and his ability to share so much with his fans. When he championed a movie, he would do it passionately and wholeheartedly, no matter what anyone else thought. I remember him getting behind the little-seen science fiction film "Dark City" in 1998, eventually declaring it the best film of the year. My DVD of the film has the commentary track he recorded for it. I probably never would have seen the movie without his recommendation, and now it's one of my favorites.
And then there was his Overlooked Film Festivals, and his shot-by-shot analysis screenings at the University of Chicago, where he taught many classes over the years, and so many other fascinating film events that he was at the center of. I would read the recaps or hear about them from other fans, and wish I could have attended somehow, even though I was always hundreds and hundreds of miles away. It was never hard to find fans of Roger Ebert though. He's clearly the most influential film critic of our times, the most popular and among the most trusted. There's no one who writes about film that hasn't benefited from his success or his example.
We've had a very long time to get used to a world without Roger Ebert. After his illness he was still very active as a film critic, but you could see him slowing down bit by bit, and it was clear he would never recover from the disastrous surgery in 2006 that robbed us of his physical voice. On a recent visit to his site, I was alarmed to see that almost all the recent reviews had been contributed by other critics, notably Richard Roeper. I hurriedly checked his blog to make sure he was still there, that he was still writing.
And then a few days ago we got the announcement of his effective retirement. And now the balcony is closed.