A few days ago I posted an announcement on social media that our library’s next virtual movie discussion was open for registration. On Friday, March 4 at 7pm ET, we will discuss Life Itself (2014), a documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert. (You can sign up for that discussion right here.)
That posting led to an online discussion and appreciation of Ebert which is still going on, citing some of Ebert’s quotes, reviews, interviews, and more. Those discussions also led me to revisit my thoughts on Ebert in preparation for this Friday's discussion.
I consider Roger Ebert a personal hero because he was able to do two things I’ve always wanted to do: watch movies and discuss them in a way that is intelligent and informative, yet unpretentious. Ebert had a way of writing about movies – even movies you’d think you have no interest in watching – that made you want to trust him. Even when I disagreed with him, I always respected his opinion, experience, intelligence, and tremendous amount of knowledge.
My first encounter with Ebert happened in 1978 when I watched him and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews discussing the film Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret. I had just seen the film and thought it was sensational. Siskel agreed with me, but not Roger. Although Ebert praised the performances, he had issues with the film, particularly during its second half, practically dismissing the movie.
I was incensed. I’d had a great time watching Magic, and this guy was pouring water on my wonderful experience. How dare he? But when I saw the film again, I realized he was right. Ebert correctly pointed out the film’s problems and why certain parts of it didn’t work.
From that moment on, I found myself agreeing with Ebert more than I didn’t. In the opening of one of their shows, you see Siskel on a Chicago street corner, grinning as a Chicago Tribune newspaper delivery truck passed by sporting an ad that read “Read Gene Siskel.” In the next shot, Ebert motions another truck to pull up, a Chicago Sun-Times truck that reads “Trust Roger Ebert.” I did trust Ebert. Although I liked and respected Siskel, there was something in Ebert’s delivery (even though Siskel was the more natural of the two on camera) that spoke to me.
In the 80s, I would frequently purchase Ebert’s yearly book of movie and video reviews, reading them from cover to cover. I wasn’t always able to catch Sneak Previews or At the Movies, but when I did, you couldn’t pull me away. The best portions of those shows included heated arguments between Siskel and Ebert. You could tell these moments were completely unrehearsed. They both defended their positions tooth and claw, giving the impression that not only did they frequently disagree, they probably didn’t even like each other.
That thought was confirmed in a series of interviews with Bob Costas that aired sometime in the late 80s or 90s. This two-part interview with both critics was extremely revealing. Both Siskel and Ebert started out as journalists, not film critics, and each of them thought they were the better critic. I think they eventually replaced that animosity and rivalry with something that eventually evolved into respect and admiration. If you never saw Siskel and Ebert in action, you really missed something special. Thankfully, you can see many of those episodes on YouTube.
Of course Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times webpage, his blog, and his website have always been enormously popular, but my favorite way to experience Ebert is by reading his books, particularly his four volumes of The Great Movies. These volumes are priceless, presenting Ebert’s choices of and justification for the greatest films in cinematic history. Ebert wrote several other books as well, most of which I have read.
Although it was several years after Ebert’s passing, I decided to attend Ebert Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Boulder in 2019. You can read about that experience here.
You can find many different critics and writers of film, some for the general reader, some academic, some a little of both. But something about Ebert spoke to me, and not just me, but countless others. Roger Ebert talked intelligently about a subject I already loved and turned it into a life-long passion. For that, I owe him a great deal.