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My Roger Ebert

April 4, 2013  |  11:10pm
My Roger Ebert

The influential film critic, who died April 4 at the age of 70, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember—even though I never met him.

Most people who fall in love with movies at an early age have someone influential help guide the way. Usually it’s a parent or family member who takes you to the theater and opens up your world. In my case, it was my Uncle Steve, who introduced me to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager. It changed my life forever.

But there were two other people who were just as important—folks who weren’t family but who visited my home once a week. I’m certainly not alone in saying that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were essential in developing my passion for movies as a kid. I grew up in a small town in Illinois that had two theaters and five screens, which showed only the big movies and nothing foreign or independent. But on a weekly basis, the Siskel & Ebert television program suggested a whole other universe of moviegoing that sounded, frankly, a lot better and a lot more interesting than what my small town was offering. The way Siskel and Ebert talked about these films—with passion and back-and-forth arguments—made cinema seem like a pursuit worth taking seriously, not just something you went to see for a couple hours and then forget. Even as a kid, I sensed that the world was a bigger, grander place than what I could see driving around my hometown. Siskel & Ebert seemed to be beamed in from that larger world, offering a brief glimpse and promising me that all I had to do to be part of that community was get my hands on these movies. I did so, gladly.

Thinking back, I can’t recall which of them I liked better. Siskel was into sports, just like me, and his biting sense of humor reminded me of my dad’s. Ebert seemed like the more conversant guy about movies, and because he was always known as the “fat one,” I think I assumed that he must be so smart because he was picked on, having to hide in his encyclopedic knowledge of movies as a way to escape from the cruel people around him. (Was any of that true? Probably not, but as a young kid who was smart but felt like something of an outsider myself, I have no doubt I projected onto him my own insecurities—and my secret belief that those inadequacies would someday be rewarded like they had been for Ebert. After all, he was on a television show!)

Soon, I started picking up Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, an annual collection of his full-length reviews (republished from his gig at the Chicago Sun-Times) that featured new pieces plus old favorites. He worked with a four-star rating system, and so of course I started reading all the four-star reviews. Bear in mind, these were for movies I hadn’t yet seen, but the way he described them made them sound incredibly powerful. My father will talk about a time before television when you listened to baseball games on the radio. The glory of that period was that you pictured everything that was being described in your mind, which was far more evocative than actually seeing the images on your TV. That’s how it was for me reading Ebert’s four-star reviews. Indeed, as much as I admire films like Raging Bull and Apocalypse Now, they have always been somewhat disappointing simply because they couldn’t live up to Ebert’s magnificent writings about them. (I still remember the final six words of his Raging Bull review, which perfectly encapsulates all you need to know about Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the toweringly tormented Jake LaMotta: “The raging bull. The poor sap.”) Reading these reviews, I simply couldn’t believe that all these great movies existed and I hadn’t seen them. I was the ideal audience for a movie critic: someone with boundless enthusiasm and curiosity who was excited to be guided by an expert.

And I was lucky—I didn’t go on this journey alone. My best friend growing up was Will Leitch, who shared that enthusiasm and curiosity for movies. It was with Will that I started spending my weekends in high school going to Champaign-Urbana, where Ebert grew up and went to college, to go to the art house theater and see movies that my town didn’t show. I saw Malcolm X, The Player, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, A Brief History of Time … just typing out these titles brings back a flood of happy memories and reawakens that thrill of discovery. Plus, we rented as much as we could, often relying on Siskel and Ebert’s recommendations. I will always remember watching Do the Right Thing in my living room, stunned that a movie could speak so ferociously and be so provocative and move you so profoundly. I had never spoken with Ebert, but I somehow felt a connection between us, a shared love of a great movie. This happened again and again.

The other advantage of having a best friend who’s so into movies is that it creates your very own Siskel & Ebert starter kit. I lived for the post-screening debates with Will after we had seen a movie together. Siskel & Ebert planted the idea in my head that seeing a movie isn’t enough—talking about it afterward was equally important. That show taught me that a movie is meant to be shared and discussed and argued about. When we’re talking about a movie, what we’re really doing is talking about ourselves: our value systems, our worldviews, our biases and aesthetic preferences. Siskel & Ebert helped form a belief that great movies could be about anything: two middle-aged guys talking (My Dinner With Andre) or a revision of Christ’s crucifixion that took liberties with a story that had been drilled into my head in Catholic school (The Last Temptation of Christ). In hindsight, I realize that they were teaching me to think for myself and question things. People who assumed Siskel & Ebert was just about movies were never really paying attention.

But like a lot of people you admire when you’re young, Ebert became someone I rebelled against in college. Going to film school and being exposed to a flurry of new opinions and worldviews, I began to question his taste and doubt his judgment. Suddenly, he became the uncool thing I mocked, a symbol of status-quo thinking who wasn’t nearly edgy enough to support. I think back on it now with a huge amount of shame. Of course, Siskel and Ebert kept doing their work, championing movies that needed the boost. Most prominently during my time in college, they beat the drum for Hoop Dreams, the landmark 1994 documentary that follows two Chicago high school students, Arthur Agee and William Gates, over five years as they pursue a career in the NBA. And while my punk-ass college self turned my nose up at Ebert, he was writing persuasively and wonderfully about this movie—better than I ever could. “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for,” he started his review. “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.” Exactly right—and then this ending: “Many filmgoers are reluctant to see documentaries, for reasons I’ve never understood; the good ones are frequently more absorbing and entertaining than fiction. Hoop Dreams, however, is not only a documentary. It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and exposé, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” This is how you win people over to see a movie they might otherwise resist. You don’t browbeat them, and you don’t patronize them by talking down to them. You communicate your own feelings as honestly and directly as you can—and then you hope that this will be enough to convince the reader to give the movie a shot.

This has always been his gift as a writer—one of many. He has a way of speaking straight to the reader that’s simple and emotional. It’s no doubt why I connected with him as a kid. His writing style was welcoming and warm, and it assumed you were smart enough to appreciate the sorts of movies he was praising. He made you feel smart, even if you were just a kid. Critics forget this so easily—we’re trying so hard to sound so cultured and so cool that we get too wrapped up in impressing our reader when we should be having a conversation with him or her. As a college student, I was snide about Ebert’s accessibility, considering it a weakness. As always, he was far wiser than me.

Ebert kept going after Siskel’s death in 1999, but it was a different Ebert. After being joined at the hip to his on-air sparring partner for so long, Ebert was now his own man, a solo act. Yes, he continued the show with Richard Roeper, but that special chemistry that Siskel and Ebert had, which seemed so easy on screen, turned out to be not so easy at all. Roeper simply couldn’t push Ebert’s buttons like Siskel could. You never got the sense that they were fighting over the same turf with life-or-death stakes. That’s what made Siskel & Ebert such fun: You never forgot that they thought they could somehow “win” the argument. Neither Siskel nor Ebert ever won; everybody who watched did.

As a film critic now, I would continually be amazed at how hard everything is that Ebert made seem easy: writing succinctly, being funny, trying to find something interesting to say about a formulaic movie that’s like 100 movies before it—and doing it over and over again for years. And beyond that, remaining enthusiastic—genuinely enthusiastic—and listening to your heart about how a movie has touched you. Take his 2007 end-of-the-year piece, where he went with Juno over No Country for Old Men for best film. “How can I choose this warm-hearted comedy about a pregnant teenager, when the year was rich with serious drama?” he asked. “First, because of all the year’s films I responded to it most strongly. I tried out other titles in the No. 1 position, but my heart told me I had to be honest: This was my true love, and I could not be unfaithful.” It is far easier to go with the consensus pick: the tougher, edgier movie. But Ebert couldn’t lie—it would be breaking faith with his readers, who trusted him.

Or take his review of The Longest Yard, the forgettable Adam Sandler remake, which he gave three stars. As he mentions in his review, he saw it before going to the Cannes Film Festival, but now that he was back home weeks later after surveying the best in world filmmaking, he was apologetic for liking the movie. “I do not say that I was wrong about the film,” he wrote. “I said what I sincerely believed at the time. I believed it as one might believe in a good cup of coffee; welcome while you are drinking it, even completely absorbing, but not much discussed three weeks later. Indeed after my immersion in the films of Cannes, I can hardly bring myself to return to The Longest Yard at all, since it represents such a limited idea of what a movie can be and what movies are for.” The review may have been a backhanded compliment, but it truthfully acknowledged what all filmgoers know: Sometimes, we like mediocre movies for our own reasons, even when we know there are greater movies elsewhere. Admitting this didn’t diminish Ebert—it proved how like the rest of us he was.

You can go online and read plenty of appreciations from film critics of my generation who were just as influenced by Ebert (and Siskel) as I was. There have been those over the years that complained that Siskel & Ebert watered down film criticism, the show’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down trademark becoming a simplistic shorthand that stripped away intelligent, in-depth analysis for TV-friendly sound bites. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but only a little. I’d argue that they found a way to make movie love (not to mention ideas) entertaining and thoughtful on television, which is no easy feat when you consider how many shows now feature people yelling opinions at each other. That’s why so many of us—film critics, filmmakers, film enthusiasts—loved the show. Siskel and Ebert made us say, “Hey, I want to do that,” which meant something—anything—in the world of movies. (To this day, Will and I still reveal our annual Top 10 lists to each other almost like it’s a television show, an homage to Siskel & Ebert that’s been going on for more than 20 years.)

I’ve had opportunities to introduce myself to Roger Ebert in recent years at film festivals, but I’ve always turned down the chance. Part of the reason is because I didn’t want to come across as one more adoring fan who gets all tongue-tied. But part of it is also that, like with Ebert’s reviews that I read as a kid, I prefer the image of the man I have in my head to the flesh-and-blood person. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Ebert personally, but still, my imaginary version of him is mine and mine alone, and I always wanted it to stay exactly that way. It’s the one that reminds me to write better and write more honestly. (It might as well be my Jiminy Cricket.) Even now that he’s gone, I don’t regret that decision of never meeting him. Now, my version of him will always remain.

Shortly after the news of Ebert’s passing, a funny thing happened. Friends and loved ones started contacting me to see if I was doing okay. You would think that there had been a death in my family. Considering how long he’s been a part of my life, I suppose there had been.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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