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Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Thursday was a truly sad day. As everyone knows by now, Chicago film critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. I believe the cause was cancer. The tragic news broke when I was searching the Chicago Sun Times website and I came upon this story on its website here – the news is pretty devastating. The news of his death comes just as he was taking a leave of absence to treat his cancer which was the cause of his death. Add to it that he died a year after Andrew Sarris, who was another legendary film critic.

The Last of Old Chicago and the demise of unique outside voices

Along with Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet and Studs Terkel, Roger Ebert represents (in my opinion) the last of Old Chicago. He also stands alongside his late colleague Gene Siskel as an example of an articulate voice in film reviewing. Add to that the likes of non-chicagoans Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Robin Wood and the aforementioned Sarris and the  number of unique voices in film criticism start declining to the single digits. The only one I can think of at the moment is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who used to write for The Chicago Reader. Based on my knowledge, he became a chicagoan when he started writing for said newspaper. I am pretty sure he still lives here. Their are also a handful of others elsewhere I am sure.

The Siskel and Ebert Years (1975-1999)

True, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel may have seemed too mainstream when compared to the names I mentioned, but that in no way diminished their excellence. Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun Times and Siskel wrote for the Chicago Tribune. The newspapers they worked for might have been rivals, but the two seemed like friendly rivals who respected each other. Siskel and Ebert stood out as true gentlemen in my opinion. True, all of us have agreed and disagreed with Ebert just like he himself agreed and disagreed with Siskel. In fact, just watch their review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet right here. Not to spoil anything, but I agreed with Siskel. Nonetheless, Siskel dissed Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (read the reviews of the film on rottentomatoes.com) whereas Ebert loved it. I agreed with Ebert. They both loved Pulp Fiction (here). I also loved it when they reviewed and praised restorations. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as an example. They reviewed and praised it twice. Once in 1983 when five “lost” Hitchcock films were re-released in theaters (this also included Rear Window) and again in 1996 when it was digitally restored. Read here and here. Additionally, their were times where they both agreed on a bad film. One example is Rob Reiner’s misguided 1994 comedy North.  In fact, Roger Ebert wrote a book about bad films entitled I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie which was published in 2000 and followed it in 2007 with a similar book entitled Your Movie Sucks. Anyway for Siskel and Ebert’s review of North click here.

The Show Continues 

Once Gene Siskel had died, Roger Ebert suffered a dilemma. Should the show continue? Siskel and Ebert had been reviewing films on Television since 1975, which was the same year Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer prize. From 1975-1982, they were on the PBS series Sneak Previews. After hosting a similar program from 1982-1986, they began hosting At The Movies which quickly became Siskel and Ebert and The Movies. The show ran as this title from 1986-1999. Ebert could have just easily thrown in the towel and continue writing, but instead he made the decision that the show must go.

Ebert & Roeper At the Movies (2000-2008)

From 1999-2000, At the Movies was titled Roger Ebert and the Movies until he found somebody he deemed was a worthy co-host which was Richard Roeper, a columnist for The Chicago Sun Times. From 2000-2008, it was titled Ebert and Roeper and the Movies. Sure, he was no Gene Siskel, but then again nobody is. Nevertheless, I actually think he was and still is a pretty good film critic. I will concede though that unlike the Siskel years, their was never anything that memorable during the Roeper years. During these years, Ebert had undergone two surgeries for his thyroid cancer. The first was in 2002 and 2003, although he never missed a new film. In 2006 however, as a result of removing cancerous tissue near his jaw, Ebert was going to lose his ability to speak and eat or drink. Later on, Ebert would start using a computerized voice system to speak (i.e. Stephen Hawking). Around this time, Roeper had a number of guest hosts, but the results were hit or miss. Brief examples of hits were Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of The New York Times. Some examples of misses were comedian Jay Leno and singer John Mellancamp. Not that I have a problem with these last two, in fact, I love their work, however it feels awkward to have people unrelated to this profession co-hosting. In 2008, Richard Roeper decided not to renew his contract with Buena Vista Television via ABC which carried the program. In my opinion, it was a smart move.

At the Movies: Redux

Amid his film review writings, Roger Ebert decided to reboot At the Movies by moving the show to PBS. The show lasted from January 2011 to December of that year. The hosts were Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Mubi.com. I thought they were both fantastic, but then again that is just my opinion. Since it was being broadcast on PBS, it relied on funds to keep going and sadly by the end of the year no progress was being made. The show featured guest commentary by various film critics in the business and Ebert himself was spoken on screen by Bill Kurtis. While it was a tragedy that the show ended too soon, it was not surprising. Today, a TV series that reviews films now seems out of date when the Internet has now taken over our lives and we can watch similar programming on websites etc. Film critic and writer Marshall Fine has written something similar on this right here.

A Fistful of Gems

As with all film critics, Roger Ebert always championed gems that were overlooked at the time. Two perfect examples are Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The former came out a decade before he became a film critic, but based on my knowledge, he was one of the earliest defenders of the film when it was starting to get re-examined. As a side note, Robert Mitchum was reportedly his all time favorite actor and Ingrid Bergman was his all time favorite actress. The latter film came out in 1974 when he was already a critic. Already a staunch defender of The Wild Bunch (1969), Ebert went further with this film and labeled it “the most autobiographical film Peckinpah ever made.” If you would love to read the reviews, go to www.rogerebert.com or google his reviews since the search engine of his site is down. I am sure their are plenty more examples of gems he defended thereby influencing others to rediscover them, but in my opinion these are the most notable.

The Favorite Films of Roger Ebert

Every film critic has a list of films they love. Roger Ebert was no exception. As with the most prestigious film critics of the time, he always contributed to Sight & Sound magazine’s annual Top 10 lists, which happens every ten years. He was lucky to have still lived last year as 2012 was the first time since 2002, where critics and filmmakers vote for their 10 favorite films of all-time. Roger Ebert participated as always as he had in the previous decades with his “Top 10 Films of All-Time.” Not much had changed; he still felt that Citizen Kane (1941) was the “greatest film ever made” and went so far as to label it his desert island movie. Hey I think it is an American classic. One of the films on his list Vertigo (1958) made it to number one on the critics list this year and remains one of my all-time favorite films. He was a staunch admirer of Werner Herzog’s international classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). He did however replace Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1988) with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I recall he wanted to replace Kieslowski’s film either with this one or with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Thankfully, he made the right decision with this one. For those interested in what his Top 10 Best Films of All-Time were, Click here.

Reversal of Opinion

As with most film critics, one is bound to have disagreements. I personally feel that he was unfair to the films of David Cronenberg (I am a big fan). However, he and Gene Siskel strongly embraced his 1986 remake of The Fly. Siskel even said that lead actor Jeff Goldblum deserved an Oscar nomination. Additionally, Ebert did highly praise Cronenberg’s later work (e.g. A History of Violence and Eastern Promises). Ebert never revised his opinion of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), but he did state his enthusiasm for some of his other films like The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Nonetheless, out of all his reversals of opinion, his most notable were ones that I love: Blade Runner (1982), The Shining (1980) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Truth be told, I become a lover of that last title back in 2009. When first released, he had mixed emotions on all three of these films. Two decades later he would correct that mistake by adding them to his “Great Movies” lists. Read them right here or you can read them in his “Great Movies” book series pictured below.

Robert Ebert’s Favorite Directors

As far as taste in film directors go, Roger Ebert championed the works of all the master filmmakers past and present. His “Great Movies” section features reviews of films by master directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. As far as contemporary goes, he most notably adores the work of directors Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. He has written a superb book on the latter and chose Raging Bull (1980) as one of his favorite films on his Top 10 list. As with Herzog, Ebert was good friends with Scorsese. They both did a show together much earlier in that same decade in which they talked about their “10 Best Films of the 1990’s.” I can’t find the entire episode, but If you go on youtube and type “Ebert and Scorsese Top 10 1990’s”, you will find some excerpts of the episode. In fact, Scorsese wrote the afterward to Ebert’s book on him entitled Scorsese by Ebert. As for Herzog, he and Ebert have kept in touch continuously. Herzog was at the 2005 event that celebrated Ebert’s induction into The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Herzog also kept in touch with Ebert during the Ebertfest of 2007. He also dedicated his documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2008) to him. In fact, google “Herzog and Ebert” and you will find a source that says “A letter to Werner Herzog” on www.rogerebert.com. You will also find a recent interview with Herzog on Ebert right here.

More than just a Film Critic

Roger Ebert was one of the many people who played a major role in my ever increasing passion for cinema. Growing up and watching him and Siskel give the thumbs up (praise) or down (scorn) to newly released movies every week was always a pleasure to watch. To me, Ebert was a man of many achievements. Yes he championed all sorts of films like all truly great critics. He also championed foreign films as well as films that had little chance of getting a wide theatrical release. His biggest achievement  for me however is his contribution to the cinema scene of Chicago. He injected the city with a prestige every bit as significant as that of Los Angeles and New York. Although he is not responsible for this organization (he might be a member), since 1989, our city has held its annual Chicago Film Critics Association Awards. The Chicago International Film Festival on the other hand has existed since 1965. He was also an interesting conversationalist. I can’t list them all here, but If anybody has seen his talk show appearances, you will know what I mean. In fact, read his memoir or a book of his best writings for further proof. He could be funny: one of his long time goals was winning one of the weekly cartoon caption contests in The New Yorker, which he achieved in April of 2011. He has also said that MAD Magazine was one of the many things that influenced him to become a film critic. Another interesting thing is that he actually co-wrote the screenplay to Russ Meyer’s  1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert is actually honest about how “poorly” he feels the film is or lack thereof. I personally love it. Read here for more info. Ebert could also be candid as well: he one time stated that he used to be an alcoholic until 1979 when he was seeking recovery through AA meetings. In 1992, he married an attorney Chaz Hammelsmith. Interestingly enough, this was Ebert’s first marriage. The reason Roger did not marry sooner in life was due to his fear of displeasing his mother. Ebert really loved her though. In fact, google the blog entry “Roger Loves Chaz” which you will find on www.rogerebert.com and you will be impressed. I personally feel that Chaz has been a great wife to Roger especially during his battle with cancer. My prayers and sympathies go out to her during this hard time.

The Balcony has permanently closed

Back in 1999, Gene Siskel’s unexpected death must have seemed to a majority of people (including Ebert himself) to be the end of an era. I would say it signaled the beginning of the end. Despite my continuing love for At the Movies and its longevity,  the episodes with Richard Roeper did not spark the same memorability   that it did with Siskel. In the second half of the last decade, Ebert’s cancer completely overwhelmed his whole body (including voice loss) to the point that he could only communicate through writing. Although his life seemed to be on his last leg after the surgery in 2006, he more than made the most of it in the last 7 years and 3 months of his life. His writings not only touched on the topic of films, but also a wide array of topics like the ones I mentioned in this blog entry. He also successfully rebooted At the Movies despite lasting for only a year. The death of Roger Ebert may mark the end of an era, but Ebert has left an everlasting legacy that will continue to enrich Chicago and the film community for the rest of eternity. Right now in heaven, Ebert will be reunited with Siskel as they review movies in the afterlife.

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