I would enjoy movies without Roger Ebert, but I would not savor them.
As a boy, I loved the local movie theater as much as I loved the old Busch Stadium, each with its own rules and scents and causes for floor stickiness and possibilities for something new, and going to a film on a Friday or Saturday was as much of an event as going to a Cardinals baseball game. The outing was planned days in advance, the movie carefully selected beforehand and passionately rehashed afterward.
I distinctly remember the thrill of seeing Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Muppet Movie on the big screen from a plush, squeaky seat while alternately chewing Milk Duds and trying desperately to dislodge their caramel cores from my molars. On weekends, I would sit up long after my parents had retired for The Saturday Night Shocker on the then-independent St. Louis TV station KPLR; the weekly midnight program regularly featured the classic Universal monster movies and occasional horror/sci-fi schlock from the 1950s and ’60s.
Yes, even at a young age I considered myself quite the film aficionado. Then one day I saw two guys on TV arguing about a movie I never heard of directed by someone I didn’t know from a country whose residents didn’t speak English.
I became a devoted viewer of At the Movies, and thanks to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (and the rise of video stores) was exposed to a whole new world. Soon thereafter I sought out their respective newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, from the local library; although they lacked the conversational (or bickering, depending on the film) tone of their show, their reviews provided new films to explore and new ways to perceive them. Though smart, Siskel and Ebert were not snobby; they just loved movies, loved writing about them and loved talking about them, and they did both with precision and perspective.
As I grew older and developed an affinity for journalism and criticism, I gravitated more toward Ebert; there was something both professorially wise and fan-boyishly gleeful in his writing and in his embrace of films as disparate as Anaconda and Annie Hall. Without him, I may have eventually discovered the likes of Kurosawa, Truffaut and Ozu, but I would likely not have cherished them.
Siskel is long since gone, and Ebert retired from television after multiple cancer-related surgeries left him without his lower jaw and the ability to speak (not to mention eat solid food). But Ebert’s voice remains strong; his film criticism still appears regularly in the Sun-Times, and he continues his excellent Great Movies essays (a third collection of which will soon be published in book form).
As valuable a contribution as Ebert has made to film appreciation, he may be making an even more valuable one as an ordinary human being (albeit one with an extraordinary gift for words) finding purpose, grace and even humor in debilitating conditions. In a lovely recent Esquire piece, writer Chris Jones chronicles Ebert’s cancer surgeries, his newfound reliance on Post-it notes, his still-passionate love affair with film and, perhaps most impactfully, his online journal, in which he often eschews film in favor of more personal topics, including, as Jones points out in a passage quoted in the article, Ebert’s own mortality:
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
I once met Roger Ebert at a journalism conference in Chicago when I was a college sophomore just dipping my toes into the waters of film commentary for the university’s weekly entertainment rag. Ebert was standing near a bank of elevators, surrounded by stern-looking, professional adults. “Go introduce yourself,” a friend prodded. I was dumbstruck. This was, to me, the Ozzie Smith of movie criticism; a nimble, game-changing force whom little snuck past. My friend pushed me across the floor, jumped into the group and extended a hand to Ebert. My friend explained that I was a budding film writer and a huge (but non-stalker) fan of Ebert; the great critic asked where we were from. “Ah, Charleston,” he replied upon learning that we attended Eastern Illinois University, not far south from his native Urbana and alma mater, the University of Illinois. He asked me the last movie I saw and loved, and I replied The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (at the time I was taking a course on Luis Bunuel); he smiled approvingly and said, “Bunuel is one of the greats.”
After a moment, the elevator bell sounded, and the group began to file in. “Keep writing,” he said.
You too, Roger.
Chris Jones’ Esquire article can be found here.
Roger Ebert’s Sun-Times reviews can be viewed here.
Roger Ebert’s journal is here.