Friday, April 5, 2013

Goodbye Mr. Ebert

Well, I said I didn't want to get all emo this early in my blogger days, but whatever, here I go.

It didn't really hit me until I visited his website. Then I realized how often I would check, often without paying attention, on his opinions on nearly every movie I wanted to see, was considering seeing, or even was vaguely curious about. And now I would no longer get those. And then it truly hit me: my favorite journalist, and a personal hero, was finally dead. He had Met Joe Black. He had found his Deathwish. He was...he's dead. I'm not making any more puns. That's it.

I've dealt with this sort of thing before, particularly last year when I was hit with the one-two deaths of Ray Bradbury and Christopher Hitchens, two more writers whom I admired. But I still had Ebert. I could still get away from complicated matters of politics and religion and just focus on movies. It may seem weird, but film criticism, perhaps more so than actual film, was an escape for me, especially in high school, where I was often more interested in seeing what the critical and box-office reaction was to a new film than I was to how a certain team was doing or whether a girl liked me. And when I say "often" I mean "literally all the fucking time." But that's mainly because I didn't give a shit about sports and girls didn't give a shit about me. If one of those has changed I hope it's the latter. But all throughout high school, I felt this pull to film, and I desperately wanted to know which films were good and which films were bad, and why they were that way. It does not seem fun, but people like Ebert made it fun, and maybe I could find something to do with myself if I could replicate that sort of magic.

But let's get into the man himself. Roger Ebert, was a portly Catholic film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since he was young, but he did not rise to prominence until he co-hosted a telecast with the slender, Jewish Gene Siskel. Coincidentally, the two struck something with this show: people loved to talk about movies, and if people could talk about movies in an entertaining manner, other people would gladly watch it. Its not an absurd idea: film as an industry was just being conceived at the time, and while the advent of Jaws was still a few years off, film culture certainly had a popular following. And thus, movie criticism as we know it today was born.

However, the draw was not simply watching them talk, but debate. Contemporary (well, nostalgic) critic Doug Walker would later comment that most of the people watching the show were merely interested in seeing whether the two would snap at each other. And they would, often, but off the air. There are multiple outtakes, available on the internet, of the two viciously arguing off-set, even making fun of each other's religious background. They eventually bonded however, over a shared contempt for the "fucking Protestants." And no, I'm not making that up: you can find on youtube the video where the two put aside their differences and riffed on Protestants for about ten minutes. It's the exact moment the two started liking each other, and it went uphill from there. If there's one thing that can bring people together better than a shared love of good movies, it's a shared hatred of shitty movies.
Even at the end of Siskel's life, the best thing Ebert had to say about him was that he "did not hate him." I actually found it rather sweet. Siskel's spot was later filled by Chicago Tribune columnist Richard Roeper, who cultivated an equally interesting partnership with Roger.

People loved them and hated them; it's great to hear someone give shit to a movie you hate, and bring praise to a movie you love, but for most people, all bets are off when there's disagreement. I should know, I nearly lost faith when I saw that my favorite critic had given a negative review to Jurassic Park, my favorite movie. But I looked past it; reviews are subjective in the end. Not everyone would agree, there was a fiasco not too long ago where the aging critic openly stated that video games are not art, and the whole nerd world went into a tizzy. Ebert later defended his statements rather eloquently, saying that he meant no harm to his fanbase and no disrespect to video games, but that art is subjective by definition, and to him, a
medium that requires reward-based interaction cannot be art. Also, he was a 60 year old film critic, so what the fuck did everyone want him to say about video games?

Ebert and his associates very quickly found themselves to be staples of popular culture. Gene and Roger were parodied on SNL, Animaniacs, and The Muppets. But they embraced it, appearing as themselves in shows like The Critic and Bill Nye the Science Guy, where they told kids about the importance of eyeballs. They even inspired the films they reviewed. Ebert would lament that the "thumbs up, thumbs down" motif used in Gladiator would not have existed at the time because, of course, he was the one who invented it (in Roman arenas, a thumb in any direction meant death). They even inspired characters in the Roland Emmerich film Godzilla. Ebert was again disappointed, saying that the film would have been more enjoyable if his character had been killed off.

I suppose the main takeaway from all this would be the effect the duo, and Ebert in particular, who became the first Film Critic to win a Pulitzer, had on popular culture. You can't be on the internet for more than ten minutes without coming across some sort of film review website or blog, an ocean in which I am a happy drop. It's paved the way for shows like the Nostalgia Critic and Half in the Bag, the latter of which is essentially At The Movies for a newer, more vulgar generation.

I never got the chance to meet him personally, but I can't help but feel I knew Roger, and not just because he once wrote an article about the intimate details of his sex life. Or that I read it. I can name his opinion on just about every movie, a fair amount of which gave me hope to defend my own opinions (if he likes the Star Wars Prequels and the Matrix Reloaded, then dammit I can too!). I know his favorite film of all time is Citizen Kane, and his least favorite is North.
But I had also followed his illness for some time, so when he announced his retirement from reviewing earlier this week, I feared the worst, like most. Initially, when the announcement came, I was not incredibly shocked. His last published words were, fittingly, "I'll see you at the movies."

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