[5 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
This is going to be a very personal piece of me. Not because I am a film critic. Not because I thought of myself as being the next “Roger Ebert” (or Gene Siskel) for that matter. Not because, as of late, I have taken to blaming the Pulitzer Prize winning film journalist for everything that’s wrong with modern criticism. No, I will miss Roger Ebert the way I have learned to miss many things in the last 52 years—as parts of my past fading away into the infinite abyss of mortality and the uncertainty of my remaining time on this Earth. In many ways, he is me. In others, we couldn’t be more different.
I grew up in Chicago during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Because of my family, and my connection to the city’s culture, I had a chance to experience things others didn’t. As a teen, I would sit looking out of the 38th story window of our downtown apartment and daydream about life, about the future, and more importantly, about the squat black building that sat directly across the river from our residence. It housed the Chicago Sun-Times, and within its walls lived someone who I would eventually becomes obsessed with: a writer named Roger Ebert.
I actually spent a great deal of my childhood in an Indiana suburb 90 miles outside of town. Michigan City had some minor fame as one of Al Capone’s summer hide-outs, but for the most part, it was my father’s hometown, and therefore, the place he choose to set up roots. Because of its size, and our nostalgic naiveté, my parents let me do what I want along its quaint, quiet roads. Oh sure, I had restrictions, but their idea of limits allowed me to ride my banana-seated bike all over town… and my favorite destination? The Marquette Mall and its massive movie theater.
I have dozens of memories of this now defunct movie palace: seeing Pinocchio there, hiding behind the seats when Monstro made his appearance; sneaking into The Exorcist, only to have said movie mess with my mind (and sleep patterns) for the next few weeks. The Marquette Mall Theater is where I saw Jaws, every seat filled with a screaming, satisfied patron. It is where I went to my first ‘Midnight Movie’ (Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise) and where I first experienced what would later become my favorite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (back then, I hated it).
Now, at the time, I considered myself a fairly astute film fan. Heck, I sat through both That’s Entertainment and That’s Entertainment 2 several times each. I thought I knew a lot about the movies, that is, until I stumbled upon the reviews of the Chicago Tribune‘s Gene Siskel and his daily paper rival, Roger Ebert. Reading both men for the first time, I became distinctly aware of something called “perspective” and “context”. They saw things inside the standard weekly releases that I never even considered. More importantly, they referenced important works from the artform’s past that became hallowed holy grails for me. Before the VCR would make such searches unnecessary, I would seek out showings and late night broadcasts of the efforts they recommended, hoping to complete my apparently limited movie education. They were almost never wrong.
It all came to a head one day when my dad was appearing on Chicago’s CBS affiliate. It was near the end of his tenure as a fixture in football (at least, in the Windy City) and as we walked into the station, there was Gene Siskel standing about ten feet away. He had the bushy moustache (I always loved that look) and he was talking passionately about something I couldn’t quite make out. Turns out, he and his rival, Mr. Ebert, had been offered a chance to air their opinions of film for something called Coming Soon…To a Theater Near You and he seemed angry that he, Mr. Siskel, couldn’t do the show himself. Or with someone else (like I said, my memory and ability to hear what was happening were fuzzy, at best). Siskel made weekly appearances on the station, doing a solo version of what, in a few weeks, he was going to try with Ebert.
I frantically began searching for a listing for this new example of Bill Gibron’s must-see TV, but I could never locate it. I tried and tried, to no avail. Then, one night, while I was sitting in the living room, watching the lights twinkle across the grand Chicago skyline, I accidentally changed the channel, and there, on PBS of all places, were Siskel and his costar Ebert giving some unnamed movie the once over. At first, I was furious that the show was almost half over. Then, I was drawn into the conversation. Before long, I was mesmerized. I vowed, from that moment on, that I would never miss another episode of this important TV “event”.
Almost immediately, I made my father sign up for the Sun-Times as well (he was a devout Tribune man, though he usually bought both papers). When I went off to boarding school, I paid for my own subscriptions to same. I would pursue each issue, seeking out anything Siskel and Ebert did: interviews, think pieces, reviews, anything. At first, my affinity leaned toward the Trib. Call it the influence of my dad, or a preference toward the writing, but I didn’t really pay much attention to Roger Ebert. Then, by chance, I caught Pauline Kael on some late night talk show (could have been Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, or maybe Goodnight America with Geraldo Rivera) and she mentioned Mr. Ebert. After picking up her book Deeper into Movies, I was convinced that any reference of hers had to become a reference of mine.
The obsession I mentioned before soon settled in and simmered. As Coming Soon became Sneak Previews, and then At the Movies, I barely missed an episode. I would query friends about their watching habits (both Siskel and Ebert and film), and reconsidered acquaintances because of same. I devoured every word the men wrote, but as one seemed to shun the spotlight, Ebert thrived. As he started to release books, I bought those too. As my film knowledge grew, I would go back and reference Kael and Ebert, making comparisons and marking the differences. Soon, the astute critic who inspired my interest and new passion was personally passed over for more and more Roger.
Then, something shifted. As I started to expand my experiences outward, learning to love (and now adore) horror and exploitation, I found that I know longer really shared an affinity for the simpleton shilling of Siskel and Ebert. When they were on PBS, unburdened by commercial requirements and syndication dollars, they spent time on their analysis. They didn’t just offer a perfunctory ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ Instead, they dissected each other’s opinion and took it to task with insight and knowledge. But somewhere in the mid-‘80s, Siskel and Ebert became a brand, a package, a premise to copy and continue. Even worse, he seemed to hate everything I loved, and even more importantly, showed an aging sensibility which struck me as antithetical to their job.
Time passed, and I stopped watching At the Movies. When Gene Siskel died in 1999 at age 53, I was struck by how distant I had become from something I was so found of just two decades before. When pushed for a decent memory, I was stuck between his hatred of The Evil Dead and his purchase of John Travolta’s white suit from Saturday Night Fever. I paid a bit of attention to the drive to find a replacement, watched with minor interest as the audition process lead to Richard Roeper, and then more or less gave up on the show. In recent years, with an archive available online, I sometimes find myself revisiting episodes from long ago, seeing if I still feel the same about the show, and its creators, as I did back then.
Sadly, I don’t. You see, when I decided to become a critic, it wasn’t because I wanted to become part of the aesthetic discussion of film. It wasn’t for fame (I have a little) or fortune (HA!). It was because I wanted to write. I wanted to put words to paper (or laptop/desktop) and see how far I could push the possibilities of said language. I wasn’t acting as a consumer advocate—no matter how hard the websites I work/worked for stress/stressed same—nor did I want to reduce my entire consideration of a film down to a simple ‘good’ (thumbs up) or ‘bad’ (thumbs down). To me, this job has never been about becoming Siskel or Ebert. Instead, it’s been about writing as well as those men, and the influences that inspired me toward them in the first place.
Maybe, in a sentence or two, or a moment of analytical inspiration, I’ve come close—like the distance between the Earth and the sun. I wasn’t inspired to be a critic because of Roger Ebert, but he did lead me to take my current calling very seriously. It’s the reason I’ve resented a lot of the online patter over the decade-plus I have written. Thanks to technology, and advent of the blog, and the notion that studios will pay more attention to such wwword of mouth, real, intelligent dissection of film has become a fallacy. It’s now just assertions as truths and fetishes as fact. While it may have flourished under the guise of giving the people a voice, it was really started when Roger Ebert turned to Gene Siskel and turned his telling thumb in either an upward or downward position.
That’s why Ebert’s death is so hard for me. I am torn, torn between my love of what he meant to me and angry over the plight I find my profession in, today. No, I am not discounting all those wonderful writers and thinkers who’ve taken to turning film criticism into the artform it once was, but I do know that more people care about a tired 160 character Twitter shout-out than a 1,000 word breakdown on the nuances of a current release. In our fast food nation we have become fast food thinkers, and to some extent, Ebert exacerbated that. Not really now, but back in his hallowed heyday. Today, his work post-cancer diagnosis and treatment was a weird combination of pinpoint accuracy and the occasional glaring error. He’s still thoughtful, but he’s also wise. He’s even expanded into his own online commentary, taking on hot button subjects like politics and religion with a fervor he used to show over cinema.
And now he’s gone. He had recently announced a “leave of presence” to battle a return of the disease, but those hopeful that he could fight the good fight once again were clearly not hearing the final goodbye from a man not known to parse words. He will leave behind a legacy of likeminded followers, a wealth of “he inspired me” platitudes and a backlog of work that would take years to truly appreciate. He will be remembered, reviled (there’s always someone waiting for their nemesis to die before they get out the axe and start grinding), and revered. But only the first word in that overwritten couplet really applies. For me, Roger Ebert will be as important to who I am today as the music of the Beatles or the speculative fiction of Harlan Ellison. I never got to meet the man, but I feel I know him.
Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert. Today, my balcony closed for the very last time.