Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The death of beloved, vastly influential Pulitzer-winning critic, author, and screenwriter Roger Ebert at 70 following a long, public battle with cancer has inspired a wave of appreciation of his life and work. So we asked our writers—some of whom had the honor of sharing the Chicago screening room with the esteemed critic—what Roger Ebert meant to them. Also check out Scott Tobias’ excellent tribute for our film editor’s take on the passing of a legend.
It’s hard to overstate the role Roger Ebert played in my life and career. I don’t think I would have become a film critic or gotten a film degree if I hadn’t grown up watching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel talk about movies on television in a way that made being a film critic seem like the best job in the world. Ebert’s writing was a model for my own: engaged, friendly, and casual, but with a deep understanding of and reverence for the art and history of film, and pop-culture as a whole. One of the great regrets of my career is that I never got to have a conversation with the man, but like so many of his fans and acolytes, I felt like I knew and loved him through his writing. When cancer robbed Ebert of his voice and boisterous laugh that used to echo through Chicago’s Lake Street Screening Room, he was even more engaged and public through his constantly updated Twitter account and blog. Ebert was a man of voluminous appetites who loved life and loved movies and loved people. That was reflected in his writing. On a personal level, one of the highlights of my life was receiving a blurb from Roger Ebert for my memoir, The Big Rewind. The idea that this towering icon and personal hero from my childhood actually read my weird little book and liked it enough to give it an epic blurb (I joked that it was longer than the book itself) meant everything to me and spoke volumes about the kind of person Ebert was. He won the Pulitzer Prize and wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, as well as plenty of less reputable Russ Meyer movies. If he had perished after Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, he would have left behind an impressive legacy. That screenplay represents only a tiny fraction of his impact, and it says a lot about how much he leaves behind. Ebert lived an epic, heroic life and taught us all how to suffer and die with dignity. The world, not just the world of film or popular culture, has lost a giant, a true newspaperman in every sense of the word.
In college, a roommate and I stuck a piece of posterboard on the wall in the TV room and used it to keep track of films we felt we needed to see to further our film education. (It was actually called the FIGS list, for “Films I Gotta See.”) The ritual was, we’d pick a film off the list, rent it, watch it, cross it off, and then read Roger Ebert’s review in the latest edition of Roger Ebert’s Home Movie Companion. We disagreed with him a lot, sometimes to the point of apoplexy; I mean, the man said that Brazil was too complicated and he couldn’t keep up, and that Blue Velvet should have focused much more on the dark, queasy sexual relationship between Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini. But he was still our go-to authority to start conversations and put what we’d just seen in context, and to tell us where to start examining a film. For us, he stood in for The Voice Of Authority, and while rebelling against that voice and finding our own opinions was a big part of our early relationship with his work, that was as valid as any other approach—and it taught us to be critics, both in terms of figuring out how to address a film, and in terms of finding a balance between personal, emotional reaction and analysis.
In later years, when I started working in the field professionally and came back to reading his long-form reviews, I was always struck by how easily and naturally he found his way into talking about each film in a different way. The hardest point of writing about anything can be finding an angle of attack, and he did it gracefully and approachable in a way I envied and, inevitably, tried to emulate. Again, he was teaching me how to be a critic.
And then, for years, I shared a screening room (and often a lobby or an elevator or a theater) with him, and I got to see over and over how generously and calmly he dealt with a starstruck public made of people who each wanted to approach him and tell him how he’d affected them, and talk about their favorite movies. Even once he couldn’t talk, he would listen, and he developed a little flourishing bow, sometimes over his folded hands, that he’d use on people who thanked him profusely for getting them into movies, or into critical thinking, or both. His graciousness was a whole different kind of lesson.
While every film critic working today owes him a debt simply for popularizing criticism enough to make their jobs possible, I still think his biggest impact on me came with the 2010 Esquire profile discussing how rationally and gratefully he was dealing with his post-cancer life. He’d spent three years eating solely through a tube and being unable to speak, but his approach to life was unflaggingly positive. He didn’t want anyone’s pity, and didn’t have any self-pity of his own. He was still doing what he loved, and getting better at it all the time, and looking back on his life without misty nostalgia or regret. That would be inspirational in any field.
When certain pompous-ass film critics talk about how Roger Ebert helped dumb-down film criticism by putting it on television and stamping movies with “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” I can only think about how watching Siskel and Ebert every week as a boy taught me to keep an eye out for foreign films and indies that I never would’ve even heard of otherwise. But Ebert’s presence in my life extends beyond his TV show. I wrote a little bit about what Ebert meant to me as a film buff several years ago. Almost as important is what he meant to me as a professional film critic. I don’t live in Chicago, so we’ve never been colleagues in the conventional sense, but in the late ’90s, when I was living in Virginia, Roger used to come up every other year to do one of his shot-by-shot movie deconstructions, and sign copies of the latest edition of his film guide. When I got my copy signed, Roger noticed my press badge, and asked me who I wrote for, and what I’d seen at the festival that I liked. In other words, he treated me like a peer, not like some small-timer. To me, he’s always been a model for how to behave in this business. He didn’t kill film criticism; he just took out of the hands of the few and encouraged the many to give it a go.
The night I saw Eat, Pray, Love with Tasha and Genevieve, Roger Ebert was also at the screening, and at one point after the movie was over, he stood a mere few feet away from me. I tried not to freak out about the fact that it was Roger Ebert and, if I can be honest, about his physical state. It was arresting, to say the least, and he obviously knew this, so the bravery that it took for him to continue to work, and to do good work, after what life dealt him, is astounding. He was a Chicago institution, what can I say? His and Gene Siskel’s voices were part of my childhood soundtrack as my parents watched Sneak Previews and then At The Movies. Ours was a Tribune household, so I didn’t read his column except in anthology form, which lived above my parents’ VCR. A few years ago I reviewed the audio version of Life Itself and was grateful to learn more about Ebert’s very full life. Sometimes when you read an obituary, you feel a sense of quiet happiness when you realize what a beautiful, complete story a person’s life can be, and Ebert certainly lived one of those lives.
Like many of my colleagues here, I frequently saw Ebert at screenings, and every time I did, I was in awe. More often than not, he was with his wife, Chaz, who he clearly loved very much, and that’s where I think I learned the most from Roger Ebert. In his book, Life Itself, Ebert called Chaz, “the great fact of my life,” as if to say that, above all else, she’s what he wanted to be remembered for. He wrote a lot, meant so much to so many people, and did great things, but more than anything, he loved his wife and she loved him, and that was all that really mattered. I often watched them together at screenings, sneaking peeks while she helped him to his seat or made sure he had a clear route to the exit. You could tell she was protective of him, and that, in a way, he’d become her life and she was his. While I hope that nothing as horrible as the cancer that took Roger’s jaw happens to myself, my husband, or my family, I know that if it did, our hearts would prevail and that we could bind together to be there for each other no matter what state we were in, following slowly, touching softly, and loving completely.
There’s no way to sum it up, except to say I doubt I’d be writing these words if it weren’t for him. Before the Internet, and even before I thought to seek out criticism under my own steam, I read the movie reviews that came into my house: Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin in the New York Times, and Roger Ebert, who was syndicated in my local paper. Far more than At The Movies, it was his writing that mattered, turning me on to movies like Raise The Red Lantern and Paradise Lost, to say nothing of Citizen Kane. Seeking them out led me to my not-so-local art house, where I went every week, and sometimes more, during summers home from college. It wasn’t until I met up with a copy of Pauline Kael’s Movie Love that I decided I wanted to write, but well before that, Roger Ebert showed me how broad and open-hearted that love could be.
I first saw Roger Ebert, in person, while covering Toronto International Film Festival in 2010—my inaugural run at the festival as an accredited journalist. In Canada, there’s this whole thing where we tend to feel really inferior and not good enough all the time, so that even when we do things really well, it’s hard to take it seriously. This is how I approached TIFF—all, “Sure it’s a pretty important film festival… I guess.” That’s until I saw Ebert at a press screening. The presence of the man who is most closely, and popularly, associated with film criticism (if not with film, full stop) darkening the doorstep of my hometown megaplex suddenly snapped everything into perspective. There was The Guy. This was A Thing. In his mere presence, Ebert—whose books I’d read and whose opinions I’d glommed onto before I’d even heard of Pauline Kael or Manny Farber or Jonathan Rosenbaum—made me appreciate my robust local film culture in an instant, just by being there, being himself. I was so enamored by his mere vicinity to me that I took to half-stalking him around the fest, shoring up the courage to speak to him but barely mustering a “Hi.” Although I did watch him moderate a tweet-off between critics (including The A.V. Club’s own Scott Tobias) and Rainn Wilson: a fun break from the festival’s gauntlet of press screenings, and a welcome reminder that even a titan of his craft never made the mistake of taking himself too seriously.
Until the mid 2000s, before Roger was diagnosed with cancer and the maladies that permanently changed his appearance and existence befell him, I would have said his biggest influence on my life is that he and Gene Siskel made me want to be a critic. From Sneak Previews to At The Movies to Siskel & Ebert At The Movies, there was rarely a week that I didn’t watch the two agree, then disagree about the movies of the moment. The one thing I noticed about them was their fights were always intelligent, with well-considered arguments to back up their assertions. Then, after Siskel died and the Internet boomed, I was able to go back and read Roger’s columns and marvel at what a great writer he was, which made me want to be a critic even more. But after he got cancer, after his jaw and salivary glands were removed and he had to survive not being able to eat, drink or—most important for a guy on TV—talk, my admiration of him came more from the fact that he decided to stay active and in public, taking to the web and to social media to write more eloquent words about more topics than he ever had before. And, despite his appearance, he wasn’t scared to show people, via public appearances and a remarkable Esquire profile, that cancer may have knocked him around, but he wasn’t going to hide. I’ve known others in my life who gave up when they got ill, and I wish they had Roger’s fortitude.
My feelings toward Roger Ebert are oddly personal, in that my father used to run the Sun-Times. When we first got to Chicago, Ebert was charming enough to introduce himself to my father by taking him out to lunch at a place downtown called The Cliff Dwellers Club, where fancy-pants rich people ate in the ’20s. It’s not a stretch to say that Ebert welcomed my dad to the city, and to the Sun-Times, and for that I am forever grateful. I only had a single encounter with him, when I showed him, Chaz, and their daughter around my old high school. I was too sheepish to introduce myself, to which my dad later snorted, saying, “You should have. I’ve done plenty of things for Roger.” I remember watching him on TV when I was very young, and the idea that he and my father—two men I hero-worship—were friends was always a mark of pride for me. I loved how open and fearless he’d become on the Internet these past few years, and I almost always followed his tweeted links or checked his blog. I’ll think of him fondly and always connected to my coming here as a young man. With that, I think I’ll go call my dad.
As much as Ebert’s populist-but-cultured passion for movies shaped my own tastes growing up—my mother and I watched Siskel & Ebert religiously—it wasn’t until he began blogging that I truly appreciated the man and his sensibility. Though cancer robbed him of his voice, it allowed him to plumb the depths of everything from science and faith to evolution, and yes, video games, on his blog. He was so prolific that it’s hard to pin down a single entry that resonated with me, but suffice it to say, he was the rare writer—witty, eloquent, perfectly pitched—that inspired me simply to do better in my own life. Not just in regards to writing or thinking about popular culture, but in every aspect of simply being alive. In the end, I think Ebert’s non-film writing will be just as important—if not more—than his film reviews. It’s a shame he’ll be remembered as simply a “film critic” by some, but there’s comfort in knowing others will remember him as much, much more.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who, after watching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel give their thumbs-up or thumbs-down reviews on At The Movies, was somewhat shocked to learn just how much they’d written over the years. Sure, their respective press affiliations were always cited at the top of each episode, but this was during an era when, a resident of Chesapeake, Virginia, like me would never casually run across a copy of The Chicago Sun-Times. At some point in the late ’80s, when I first fell in love with The Sex Pistols, I remember being dumbfounded by the discovery that Ebert had written the script for the Pistols’ planned cinematic opus, Who Killed Bambi? This, in turn, led me to discover Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, which Ebert had also scripted, and I’m sure anyone who’s seen that film knows that it’s utterly unforgettable. I can’t say for certain which edition of Ebert’s Home Video Companion—later known as his Movie Yearbook—first found its way to my bookshelf, but they instantly became must-buys whenever I found a volume that I didn’t yet own. Whether I agreed with him or not, his writing was instantly captivating. When I first decided that I wanted to write about pop culture for a living, I wanted to be the next Lester Bangs, but once I started reading Ebert’s reviews, it was his work I found myself wanting to emulate. I wouldn’t claim that I’ve ever succeeded, but I don’t feel like I could’ve asked for a better role model.
I keep hearing people talk about how sad it is that Roger Ebert died. And of course it is sad, in its way; those who were close to him will mourn him, and the rest of us will feel like a certain small part of the world has slipped away, never to return. I’m not a film critic, and I never met Mr. Ebert. I am awed and moved by the experiences others have shared, by the man’s kindness and warmth, but I have no personal anecdotes of my own to offer. Roger Ebert was a human being who passed away, like we do, and there is this idea of him that lingers. The idea is all I know: the idea behind thousands of movie reviews, blog posts, essays, and books, many of which I vehemently disagreed with, but all of them motivated by a fundamental curiosity and passion for film that managed to transcend the medium and become something like a philosophy. That keeps going, and that’s what isn’t sad. He was sick, and he got better for a while, and he used that time so well it sort of boggles the mind. He knew death was coming, and he faced it, and that’s literally the best any of us can hope for. He died knowing he was loved by family and by the vast network of movie-lovers he helped to create and inspire, so where’s the tragedy? Yet here I am, all wet in the eyes. I’m going to listen to his commentary track for Citizen Kane again. Better yet, I’ll watch it with a friend.
In my previous life, I worked as a copy editor at a mid-sized metro daily on the features desk. While this involved a fair amount of work, it also involved a fair amount of doing nothing in particular, and at a newspaper, that often meant reading the wires. I had been a fan of Roger Ebert's work going back to childhood, so I was always thrilled to read his takes on the big releases several days before others got to. And as time went on, I started to catch little things here and there in them, little things that I would e-mail his editor about changing. The one I can remember is that he'd mixed up the identity of Rachel McAdams' character in The Hot Chick, which is totally something anyone who's seen The Hot Chick would do, because who wants to remember that? I wrote what I'm sure was a pretty irritating e-mail about how it was off, and not only did his editor respond, but he did as well. As someone who now deals with the occasional e-mail from a copy editor telling me I've screwed up, I know all too well that the first impulse is always to get angry with the bearer of bad news, an indulgence way too many writers go in for. But Ebert was always kind and quick with some witty self-deprecation about how he'd messed up, and it made me like him even more. I only did this a few times, and the last—for his review of Superman Returns—received no comment from the man himself. I'd learn a few days later that he'd entered a hospital to battle the disease that would ultimately mark the last few years of his life, but even in my corner of Southern California, I knew, simply because he always made a point of being gracious and kind, even to pissant little copy editors at Generic Metro Daily, and in the absence of that conspicuous graciousness and kindness, it was all too easy to know something was up. I never met him personally, but through just a few words exchanged over e-mail, I got to know just a little of how warm and wonderful he could be.