Roger Ebert is dead and I feel really bad about it.
I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert.
Before I had opinions of my own, I used to watch Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert wage weekly battle over which films were worth seeing or skipping. Their arguments couldn’t mask the deep, sometimes grudging respect they held for each other, but they could get fierce all the same. When they agreed, when they offered both thumbs in tandem, the direction of those thumbs told me I either needed to be in that theater or needed to find something else to see.
I was finishing high school when Gene Siskel died. Once the grieving was (largely) done, Ebert installed Richard Roeper as his new sparring partner sometime after. It wasn’t the same. Certainly, their camaraderie solidified over time, but that spark was missing for me.
I didn’t really start reading Ebert’s written criticisms until the Sun-Times began posting them on their website, and then through his own sub-site. Needless to say, we didn’t always agree. I can’t think of anyone I know who always agreed with Ebert. But I always marveled at the quality of his writing, and the clarity of the voice in his work. Even if we disagreed, I always enjoyed reading him.
Maybe it’s because my own involvement was around this time, but it felt as though the early ’00s were a boom period for internet movie reviewers. Rotten Tomatoes really started to become a thing around this time, and the Movie Review Query Engine was another place to find movie reviews on the web. In addition to the professional critics and reviewers on newspaper, magazine and TV/radio websites, your Peter Traverses, Richard Schickels, Desson Howes and Bill Wines, you had the internet reviewers who loved to rip on B-movies, whose whole bit was writing lengthy, detailed, “witty” reviews of bad films. Bad reviews could be entertaining; certainly Roger Ebert could stomp the hell out of a really bad or (worse) helplessly mediocre picture.
I was writing reviews around this time as well, first B-movie reviews on my own site, then new movies and DVDs for our campus paper. There was this site, Cold Fusion Video Reviews, that I really started to follow, and for better or worse, that was my template. (Nothing against Nathan Shumate, who is a genuinely fine writer and shepherded The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, written by Chad Denton, a fellow reviewer and terrific writer who has since become a great friend of mine.) I wrote very long, drawn out reviews that mistook snark for wit. To my recollection, many of us did.
Here’s what I should have learned from Ebert:
- Brevity is truly the soul of wit. Get in, say what you need to say, and get out. There is no reason you need to do a 90-minute review of the Phantom Menace. That isn’t a review; it’s a commentary track. While there’s no set length or limit, we should endeavor to be concise, to stick to the point.
- Ebert’s best writings balanced out sarcasm with a humane sense of wonder toward and love for film. They possessed real wit. Internet snark is not the equivalent of wit. That isn’t to pronounce all internet reviewers aren’t genuinely clever or lack wit; it is to say I find the majority I’ve seen to try to hard to prove they have a voice, only to find it’s just a delivery system for putdowns and pop culture references.
Even still, no matter who got me or Chad or Nathan into writing about film, the fact that it’s even an option, that there’s a place where any of us can be taken seriously about this, we owe to Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. By all accounts I’ve read, Roger Ebert was a great man in person, a clever man who always tried to include people in the discussion, be they peer or fan. Even after cancer of the salivary gland caused the loss of his ability to speak, he was as active as possible, writing reviews, blogs and books, organizing his festival, and trying to keep his beloved At the Movies on the air without sacrificing its soul.
Hearing about his death, especially considering he’d reported his cancer returned the day before, was a huge blow. I won’t pretend that I don’t get upset over the deaths of people I’ve never met, but this was one that felt entirely justified. Roger Ebert was one of those people who contributed to my view of the world, even if it was through disagreement. I’ll always be grateful for that, just as much as I’ll be grateful for his later legacy, not just as a writer, but as a man who turned dogged survival into vivid life, who found happiness in film, writing, rice cookers, and other little things even as his body deteriorated. He’s already missed.