Our house was a Tribune house. We didn’t get the Sun Times. No one in my family did. Roger Ebert, in my mind, existed only as “that guy from the TV.”
I didn’t love the movies growing up. I enjoyed them well enough, but my tastes were predictable; I liked what was I supposed to like, and nothing more. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future. Bloodbaths like Terminator 2 and RoboCop were enjoyed when they could be had (typically in the absence of the prying eyes of parents). For several years, my favorite film was Independence Day. That should tell you all you need to know.
In 1999, I started high school – the same time a cousin of mine began studying film at Notre Dame. Around the holidays, I’d hear him talk about certain movies (typically ones on the horizon), and I’d seek those films out whenever possible. The impetus for this was curiosity – what else was out there? Slowly, my world broadened, one film at a time. Rushmore. The Blair Witch Project. American Beauty. Bringing Out The Dead. Almost Famous. O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mulholland Drive. Before I knew it, I was hooked. I still am.
I started reading Michael Wilmington’s reviews in the Friday section of the Tribune (Wilmington was the one who took over for Gene Siskel after he passed away); at a time when popularity seemed of paramount importance, it was comforting to have an unpopular opinion amongst your peers (e.g., Pearl Harbor sucks) reinforced by someone older. Someone published. Wilmington wrote of Pearl Harbor that it was “[a] story so clogged with clichés of every description, so overblown, bombastic and agonizingly sentimental that it’s hard to watch it with a straight face.”
And I concurred.
A few years passed. A friend of mine got a job at the now-defunct Blockbuster Video (which meant loads of free movies), and the floodgates opened as wide as they could go. And in the fall of 2003, I headed off to college in Michigan. I wasn’t enrolled in the Film/Video program yet (you couldn’t enroll as a freshman), but I would be soon. That’s when I started paying attention to Roger.
It was all geography. I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and while I had a casual familiarity with both Siskel & Ebert from their WTTW show of the same name (who from the area didn’t?), I never fully grasped the extent of the duo’s national popularity until I had gone off to college. You talked movies (which I did, frequently), and their names would eventually come up; by contrast, almost no one knew who poor old Michael Wilmington was. Wilmington was *my* Chicago guy, and I was starting to feel left out. I knew Ebert’s reviews were all up on the web, so I set off to check them out – and I knew exactly which one I needed to begin with.
Released in 1994, The Hudsucker Proxy was the Coen Bros. first mainstream endeavor after the critical success of Barton Fink in 1991. It was, and remains, my favorite film. Ever. And Ebert awarded it only two stars. He did so in a review that was powered by a thematic device: an angel on one of his shoulders, a demon on the other. One wants four stars. The other wants zero. Go ahead and read it if you haven’t; it’s masterful. It’s difficult to make a review like that work, to have it not feel gimmicky. Ebert wrote more than a few thematic reviews like that, and he always landed them (his write-up of Milk Money is particularly great, so circular is the logic of its two hapless studio execs). A lot of reviews that toy with style like that (film or otherwise) are heavy on words and light on content; they lack simplicity and clarity. You’d be hard-pressed to find another non-traditional review that works as well as Ebert’s Hudsucker review does – and if you did, chances are he wrote it.
When Roger Ebert disliked something, you knew.
“Parents: If you encounter teenagers who say they liked this movie, do not let them date your children” – that’s how he ended his review of Resident Evil: Apocalypse.
And when he loved something, well, you knew that, too.
“At the end of the movie, we feel like seeing it again”, he wrote of Sideways (both films, it’s worth noting, were released in 2004).
His wittiest putdowns always seemed to be anchored with an honesty that was hard to ignore, even if you disagreed with him (something I did regularly). The internet is abuzz right now fondly remembering the “bottom of the barrel” slam from his 2001 review of Freddy Got Fingered – yet that’s never been the line that’s stuck with me. I always remember this one:
“The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.”
I’m smiling now, reading that. It’s funny, and it’s economical – I couldn’t think of a better way to sum up 93 minutes so accurately in such a small amount of space. And I’ve tried; I’ve “reviewed” things online, on and off, for about ten years. But I’ve read so many Roger Ebert reviews that I found myself constantly imitating his style and mannerisms (NOTE: I really, really, can’t stress the word “imitate” enough).
Sometimes, I’d “come up” with what I thought was a particularly clever turn-of-phrase, write it down, and then an hour later, I’d suddenly remember that this phrase I thought was so witty and droll actually came from an Ebert review. Verbatim. So I’d have to change it. But whatever I’d change it to always felt secondary. Ebert’s skill with language has burrowed so deep into my subconscious that it invites plagiarism, if you could even call it that on such a microcosmic scale.
For a time, I actually did review movies for a newspaper. I was a member of the Joliet Herald News Popcorn Panel for five months. We were a group of non-journalist, everyday folks who reviewed movies and gave them one of the following three ratings:
1) Get To The Theater
2) Wait For DVD
3) Skip It
The reason for this format was simple: the Herald News syndicated Roger Ebert’s column, so they had no need for a full-time film critic. The Popcorn Panel emphasized the local community, and it was cheap. We weren’t paid a dime for what we wrote – we weren’t even reimbursed for tickets. I’m not complaining; it was a blast, even if I was limited to 150 words and was assigned to cover movies like Confessions of a Shopaholic. I took it very seriously, as seriously as I imagined Ebert would take it. I left Christmas dinner with my family to go see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie I disliked, and still do (Ebert did, as well; he began his review with this: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a splendidly made film based on a profoundly mistaken premise”).
None of my reviews survived online. My newspaper byline picture is gone. As far as the world knows, I was never a published film critic. But I was. The first review I submitted was for Cadillac Records – and it appeared in the December 12th, 2008 edition of the Joliet Herald News.
Here it is:
“The story of Cadillac Records is one that, intrinsically, everyone already knows. So the question isn’t ‘is this film any good?’ – instead, it’s ‘is this film worth seeing again on the big screen with a different cast of characters?’ Personally, I can’t really answer that last question; after seeing Cadillac Records, it’s hard for me to get excited about recommending it to someone, even if the film itself is actually pretty good. So, if it helps to know that the acting across the board is wonderful, andthe music is stellar (obviously), well, then there you go.”
I gave it a “Wait For DVD”. Ebert was more generous. It sounds silly, but it felt good, thinking I was doing what he was doing. It made the jobless miasma of my first post-college year bearable. It gave me purpose while I was struggling to find it.
Passion can’t be faked. I was always delighted when I found a snippet of writing where Ebert surrendered completely to passion, whether he was calling Fight Club cheerfully fascist, or No Country For Old Me a miracle. Of Ikiru, he writes:
“I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.”
On The Life of David Gale, he says:
“[Kevin] Spacey and [Alan] Parker are honorable men. Why did they go to Texas and make this silly movie? The last shot made me want to throw something at the screen–maybe Spacey and Parker.”
On Blue Velvet:
“The sexual material is so disturbing, and the performance by [Isabella] Rosellini is so convincing and courageous, that it demands a movie that deserves it.”
And there’s this note at the end of his Babe review:
“Do not under any circumstances confuse this movie with Gordy, another movie about a little pig. Babe is the one to see. Babe. Not Gordy.”
I read Roger’s film festival journal entries (which he published on his blog, along with a host of other things) whenever I got the chance; they provided a rare glimpse into his most immediate and unedited reactions to whatever film he’d just seen. In 2009, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist had its now-infamous premiere at the Cannes Film Festival – and Ebert devoted not one but two journal entries to it. You can read them here, and here, and again, you should – it’s the dialogue a person has with themselves when trying to come to grips with a force that has affected them in a deep and primal manner.
Ebert’s initial feelings on the film were manic:
“Whether this is a bad, good or great film is entirely beside the point. It is an audacious spit in the eye of society. It says we harbor an undreamed-of capacity for evil…this is the most despairing film I’ve seen.”
Two days later, he was more measured, stating simply:
“I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means.”
That was May of 2009. He reviewed the film in October of that year – and yes, he did decide.
One of the last festival entries of his I read (and one of the last he published) came from the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012; Roger had just seen Cloud Atlas – a film adapted from novel I was currently reading and could not put down – and he began by saying this:
“I know I’ve seen something astonishing, and I know I’m not ready to review it.”
When he did review it two months later, he gave it four stars, calling it “one of the most ambitious films ever made.”
Roger’s final blog post (beautifully titled A Leave of Presence) curiously reminded of a passage from his Great Movies review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris:
“Brando’s most powerful scene resonated for me in an unexpected way. The scene where he confronts the body of his wife, who has committed suicide, and mourns her in an outpouring of rage and grief…As I watched this scene, I was struck by a strange notion. I watched it again, this time imagining that Brando was talking to his own dead body — that his anger and love, his blame and grief, were directed toward himself.”
Reading A Leave of Presence, I couldn’t help but feel like there was a finality to it that was absent in Roger’s other updates about his health. It didn’t feel like an “I’ll be back.” It feels like a goodbye, like a last will and testament. Was it meant as one? Did Ebert, knowing the end was near, bid us farewell? Of course, as he concluded about Brando’s meltdown in Last Tango, “I cannot know what Brando was thinking…” – and that’s inevitably where I must end, too. But I must say, I feel like Roger Ebert would be the kind of guy who would want to say goodbye while he still could, even though he’s someone I’ve never met. And I like that.
So goodbye, Roger. I’ll see you at the movies.