Roger Ebert, perhaps the most famous film
critic of all time, passed away on April 4th of this year. He was a rarity in the world of criticism: most people who
read him, watched him on TV, and/or knew him, liked him or at least came to
respect him as an elder-statesmen of the cinema. His TV programs with fellow
Chicago film critic Gene Siskel-- Sneak
Previews, At the Movies, and Siskel & Ebert & the Movies--were
often ridiculed and reviled because of their trademark "thumbs up/thumbs
down" down rating system, which most serious cinephiles considered an
insultingly simplistic way of judging the merits of a movie. But through these
shows, Siskel and Ebert introduced an entire generation of filmgoers to a far
more diverse and eclectic range of pictures than most people outside of major
cities could ever discover on their own. And the thumb-verdict approach was
simply an indication of whether or not they’d recommend a film to their
viewers--it was not the way they reviewed films in print. Though I
didn't love Ebert's writing style, and most often did not share his views on
specific movies, I always enjoyed him as a TV personality, and respected him as
someone who shared my passion for cinema.
There are literally hundreds of films I would never have seen were it not for Siskle & Ebert. They brought the great big world of the movies to my small window on the world (my TV) when I was a kid growing up in rural Massachusetts. Thanks to their recommendations, I saw a rather wide range of films during my formative years, before moving to New York to study cinema seriously. I disagreed with both Siskle and Ebert more times than not, but Ebert was the one I most often sided with because I identified with him so much. Not only was he a chubby guy like me, but he often seemed just as naive and vulnerable as I felt at the time. He also had a love of movies that was undeniable and infectious. I always got the feeling that he went to every movie wanting to enjoy it, as opposed to Siskel who seemed to go to every movie wanting to find the flaws in it. Ebert's approach was definitely the more fun way to go to the movies, and indeed it always seemed to me that Ebert was a happy guy who loved his life, whereas Siskel seemed like an angry guy, dissatisfied with how his life turned out. Regardless, I loved their shows (though in hindsight I think they showed too many lengthy clips and gave away far too much about the movies in their discussions).
As a memorial movie night for Roger Ebert, I’ve decided to screen the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre, a picture I never would have even known about as a young teen were it not for At The Movies. At age ten I was not able to see the film in a theater when it came out (I don't think it played anywhere near my home town during its theatrical release) but I never forgot Siskel and Ebert’s enthusiasm for the picture and it was one of the first movies I rented when I was in high school. I was staying alone in Boston one weekend and I went to the Videosmith on Dartmouth Street (a place where I first obtained many a great film in the now-thankfully-obsolete VHS format), found My Dinner With Andre, took it back to the apartment where I was staying, and watched it alone on a tiny TV. I'm sure what appealed to me about the film then was not all that dissimilar to what appealed to me about Siskel and Ebert--it was two guys talking passionately about things that mattered to them and to me. I was always a kid who couldn't wait to be older, partly because I wanted to have these kinds of all-night conversations, but also because I knew you had to do some living before you had anything interesting to say to anyone. Fortunately, the ugly VHS copy had good sound, and the film's central conversation washed over me like a warm bath. Since then I have returned to the movie many times, on VHS, DVD, 35mm and a few years ago when it was released as a Criterion Collection BluRay. The film always puts me in a reflective mood, and, now that I’ve seen it so many times, I often find my thoughts drifting to my own past as Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (the actors and the characters in the film) discuss theirs. Our experience of past events is what shapes our current perspectives, and invariably Roger Ebert appears when I contemplate my own humble genesis as an individual with a point of view.
It was not until last year, when I read Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, that I realized why I liked him so much, despite not often agreeing with his taste in movies. His book hardly touches on the films he has seen, the reviews he has written or the actors and filmmakers he has known. Its not a book about career accomplishments; it’s a book about a life well lived. Like Ebert, I’m more interested in enjoying my time on Earth than on leaving some kind of lasting mark on it. Of course, Ebert did leave behind him a legacy that will be long remembered, and the vast crop of amateur film writers that have sprouted up all over the Internet are heavily influenced by him whether we know it or not. I’m profoundly aware of what a major source of inspiration Ebert is for my blog, the Film5000 Project. My own writing about film is a small effort to inspire people the way he did---to open their eyes to movies they might otherwise have missed, to consider the merits of films they might not have enjoyed, and to occasionally rant about trends in cinema that make me angry. I tip my hat and raise my thumb to Roger.