I learned about art from Roger Ebert. I say this even though he was that one critic who gave Cop and a Half, starring low-point Burt Reynolds, a positive review. In fact, if I ever took issue with Roger, it was that I thought he was often too easy on the movies he would judge.
Still, while I may have taken issue with his opinions, I can say with all honesty that he made me consider art in a different way. Before I started watching Siskel and Ebert, I would have never considered foreign films like Jean de Florette, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, or indie pics like Sex, Lies and Videotape, or She’s Gotta Have it. He made me think differently.
As film critics go, he wasn’t a snob either. He could see value and gain enjoyment from a Lethal Weapon movie as well as an ‘art’ film by Terrence Malick. He made it okay to like the high-toned artsy-fartsy stuff as well as the big budget extravaganza – provided he thought it was done well.
The lack of fussiness probably can be attributed to one of his earliest efforts in film, the screenplay for Russ Meyers’ exploitation flick, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Russ Meyers, let’s just say he liked making pulpy, tongue in cheek movies about buxom women doing bad things.
Ebert began writing on film for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. He later met the professional match of his life when he and rival critic at the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, started a locally produced movie review program called Sneak Previews, which eventually morphed into At The Movies and was syndicated widely.
This is how I came to know him and Gene. They were a great pair. I doubt anyone would have thought of a skinny balding guy and a rumpled overweight fellow as anyone’s idea of appointment television, but that’s just what they were for me. It wasn’t just that their opinions were interesting, they were entertaining. You didn’t just watch Siskel and Ebert to see what was hitting the multiplex that weekend, you tuned in to watch them. What might they scrap over this week? Blue Velvet, Full Metal Jacket, The Silence of the Lambs, or hilariously, Benji the Hunted.
You never knew what you were going to get with these two, but you knew it wouldn’t be boring, even if the films they were reviewing were. Their professional marriage lasted nearly 25 years until Gene succumbed to complications from a brain tumor. I will never forget the kindness and patience Roger showed during that stretch. He waited, did some shows solo, some with guests, and memorably, at least one by phone as Gene piped in from his hospital bed.
After Siskel passed, Roger carried on with guest hosts before settling on Richard Roeper, also of the Sun-Times. It was still a good show, but certainly not the same. Then Roger met with his own cancer, the thyroid variety. Eventually, Roger’s cancer spread to tissue on his lower jaw, leading to multiple surgeries, jaw removal and a failed transplant. Roger lived out the last years of his life without a jaw, the gift of speech, or even the ability to consume food orally. Despite this, he continued to write. Not only about movies, but about social issues as well. And he did so beautifully. He also became a bit of a foodie. He and his wife would make grand spreads for friends and family, even though Roger could not partake. Can you imagine that? Cooking delicious food for others, triggering your own sense of smell and not be able to enjoy the meal yourself? What kind of person would put themselves through that?
I think a kind person would. A curious person. Someone who isn’t done living.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a great writer he was. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Pete’s sake. He could be hilarious–his takedown of Michael Bay’s second Transformers movie should be legendary– or he could write as well as the great films he often reviewed. His column on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing should be on a monument as far as I’m concerned.
So yes, a film critic taught me about art, about curiosity, about writing, and about kindness. Perhaps his greatest flaw as a film critic was that he always seemed to look for the best in every movie he reviewed. However, I suspect that may have been his greatest asset as a man.
Roger Ebert would have been 76 today. I cannot overstate how much I miss him.