Cliches are generally born of a truth that gets repeated over and over until everyone tires of it. A cliche you will be reading and hearing a lot today — and that is true in every case, including mine — is that Roger Ebert, who died today at 70 after a long battle with cancer, was the direct inspiration for people to get into the criticism game.
I first encountered Ebert, like so many outside the Chicago area he called his home, via his TV shows with Gene Siskel. It was the early ’80s, a time when entertainment media wasn’t remotely as present as it is today. This was an era when film talk was rare on television, but also when it was plausible that a TV show could become a nationwide phenomenon if it was built around two middle-aged guys — one bald, the other chubby — having thoughtful debate about the cinema. On “Sneak Previews,” “At the Movies,” etc., Siskel and Ebert talked about the latest major releases I wanted my parents to take me to, but also art house cinema like “My Dinner with Andre.” (They talked about that one so often on the show that I eventually felt like I had seen it.) What I couldn’t understand at the time, but which which was obviously a big part of the appeal, was how the two of them managed to make both high and low culture understandable and appealing without ever seeming to talk down to their audience. They were able to frame each discussion in terms their audience (even little kids) could understand and appreciate without feeling condescended to. They loved movies, and wanted you to love them, too.
At the beginning of each show, of course, the two men would talk about the newspapers they wrote for, but as someone growing up nearly 800 miles away, it never occurred to me I would get to read them. (This was long before anyone could conceive of something like RogerEbert.com.) Then I realized that one of the local papers, albeit not the one my parents subscribed to, ran Ebert’s syndicated reviews, and I would insist on stopping at the 7-11 every Friday to plunk down some allowance money for a copy.
And as good as Ebert was on television, that wasn’t a patch on his skill as a wordsmith. (In 1975, he became — rightly so — the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.) He very clearly articulated his point of view, and always did his best to judge each movie on its own level. He hated the 4-star rating system the Sun-Times required him to use, and even began to regret the thumbs up/down system he and Siskel trademarked, but it was always clear that he was critiquing a movie by the standard of how well it did what it set out to do. (Though on occasion — say, “Human Centipede” — he was so horrified by what it set out to do that he didn’t feel he could rate it at all.) Every now and again, it would seem to me that he got hung up on some minor detail — he gave the original “Die Hard” a lukewarm review based almost entirely on his dislike of the idiot deputy police chief character — but those instances stood out only because they were so unlike him, and his usual philosophy of meeting each film on its own terms. He often talked about how what a movie was about wasn’t nearly as important as how it was about it, and he kept a running log of movie tropes that had outlived their usefulness, like The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.
If the films lived up to what they set out to do, they had no greater friend than Roger Ebert. Take “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 documentary he championed on the show, and in print, where he wrote, “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.
And if they failed? Well, then he might begin a review like this: “‘Battlefield Earth’ is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.” Or it might include a passage like this one, about “North”: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
Whether he was lavishing praise on a film or elegantly destroying it, on TV or in print, Ebert was so good at what he did that he inspired me to wonder if perhaps I could do that. And though I ultimately chose to cover a medium other than Ebert’s favorite, I almost always had his voice in my head as I wrote: Are you making the best, plainest form of the argument? Are you judging this work by what it’s trying to be, and not what you want it to be? I haven’t always succeeded at either point, but I always try. One of the greatest thrills of my career came almost three years ago, when Ebert randomly praised me on Twitter. It was a moment when I was at something of a crossroads in my career, and that compliment from the man who had inspired it — and the subsequent email correspondence we had — meant everything.
Because that was the thing about Ebert: he was incredibly generous (it’s hard to find a bad word spoken about him), and he was also very skilled at adapting. He was an old-school newspaperman, who came up in the Wild West of entertainment journalism — read his profile of Lee Marvin, the sort of thing that would never happen today without a manager and three personal publicists standing in between them — yet he understood the possibilities of the internet better than most writers half his age. Even before his cancer cost him part of his jaw and the ability to speak, he had already begun using his website as an archive of his incredible collection of reviews. And once he lost his literal voice, the web gave him a new one. His writing became more intensely personal, as he dealt not only with his health problems, but his childhood, his thoughts on politics and social issues and, as always, the beauty of going to the movies. He was a robust presence on Twitter, where he had over 800,000 followers. He couldn’t talk anymore, but good lord could the man write — all the way up until the end.
Only two days before he died, Ebert wrote what would be his final journal entry, titled “A Leave of Presence,” in which he explained that his cancer had recurred, which would necessitate a stepping back of his professional responsibilities. As usual, he managed to paint the most positive picture imaginable. “I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing,” he wrote: “reviewing only the movies I want to review.”
He concluded the essay by telling us, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
After Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote of him often, usually talking about his partner and friend as if he were still out there in the universe, keeping a seat in the balcony warm for him until it was time for their next debate. I like to think that today, they’re back together, this time watching something they both agree on.
In an appreciation of Siskel and Siskel’s favorite movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ebert wrote that his partner liked to say, “Devote your life to something you love — not like, but love.” Roger Ebert got to spend his life doing exactly that — and thanks in part to him, so have I.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you loved Ebert and want to feel a little less sad about the news, enjoy his appearance with Siskel on “The Critic.” Fighting! Singing! Romance!