I remember the first time I tuned into Sneak Previews, the PBS movie show featuring a pair of Chicago critics named Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Like of a lot of movie fans, I found the show a revelation: snarky, witty and fun, but also filled with passion for the medium. These guys loved what they did, not just as a way of taking down bad movies, but as a means of sharing what they loved so much about them. Ebert, who died this Thursday at the age of seventy, was always so fearless in his declarations, and the bickering one-upsmanship of the duo quickly transformed them into household names.
We lost Siskel over a decade ago and his partner was never quite the same. But Ebert never stopped doing the things that made his reputation. He wrote with a concise insight born from decades as a newspaper man, getting to the point without skipping on the richness and variety of his subject. He found new ways of looking at movies, things the most of us couldn’t or wouldn’t be bothered to notice. Even when you disagreed with him – and we all did, at least a few times – you came away from his writing looking at the movie in a different way. He enriched the medium, beyond just telling us what to see and what to skip. In the process, he showed us what film criticism could truly be.
Despite his status as an institution, he remained defiantly iconoclastic. He took down such sacred cows as A Clockwork Orange, The Usual Suspects and Blue Velvet, while championing seemingly friendless productions like XXX and Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. He never did so to be different or to put a bee up anyone’s bonnet. He simply followed the first rule of criticism: be honest about your opinions and don’t let the prevailing mood influence them. He always paid his own way to junkets, and he never traded good reviews for access to stars and directors. His reputation was such that he didn’t need to, but I suspect he wouldn’t have changed even if he’d been an unknown blogger. He respected what he did too much.
And he never stopped. When his partner passed, he found another one – lacking the same feisty chemistry but reflecting an undiminished devotion to the craft. He developed cancer, which eventually cost him his ability to speak. He quickly moved into social media, becoming a constant presence on Twitter and Facebook. His voice remained strong even as his speech was silenced. And still, the reviews flowed from his fingertips, often three or four a week, even in the throes of medical treatment. Always smart. Always insightful. Always illuminating even when you thought he was dead wrong. He wrote his last review for The Host less than a week ago, a critic until the end. Again, he would have done so even without his endless accolades: The Pulitzer Prize, the bestselling books, the TV shows that enshrined the phrase “two thumbs up” in popular culture.
We loved him for his love of movies, but the more you learn about the man himself, the more you realize his film reviews weren’t the best thing about him. This was a man of surprising compassion and kindness. He carried deep-felt convictions and wasn’t afraid to express them, but he also respected the rights of others to disagree. Spirited discourse was his watchword, but never with malice or cruelty. You saw it in his reviews, which stuck to the facts and never got personal, even at their nastiest. That, apparently, was how he lived his whole life. “To make others less happy is a crime,” he recently wrote on Salon. “To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
Ebert not only tried, but succeeded. You can hear it in the voices of the filmmakers – some of whom he criticized – telling us what he meant to them. You can hear it in his fans, spanning generations and not quite ready to believe that he will never review another film. You can hear it in fellow critics, who often strived to live up to his example knowing that we could never come close to his magic touch. And you can hear it in fans of the movies, who felt his inspiration and saw their love for the medium reflected in him. At the end of the day, “fan” was probably the badge he would have worn with the most pride: a fan like any other, who felt most at peace when he sat among us gazing up at the silver screen. “I’ll see you at the movies,” he wrote to us all in his final message. We’ll be there with you Roger. And to quote your long-ago catch phrase from PBS, we’ll save you the aisle seat.