Remembering Roger Ebert

I always liked Siskel better.

Nothing against Roger Ebert, it's just that Gene Siskel seemed like a nicer guy. He seemed more relaxed, more like he was having fun, more like me. And his opinions about film more closely matched my own.

Plus, Ebert always seemed to be one beat behind Siskel, always catching up, always trying to meet Gene’s level of relaxed argument, but never quite getting there and oftentimes giving up with an irritated glance and a pursed brow.

It wasn’t easy to watch At The Movies starring Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert when I was growing up. The 30-minute movie review show, the first of its kind and the only place to get movie criticism on television outside of clownish Gene Shalit on Today, was aired on PBS starting in 1982. At the time, I was living at home in Ft. Calhoun, Nebraska. This was an era of rabbit ears and rotary channel changers, decades before cable would come to the rural wilderness of Washington County (Did it ever come?).

The show also aired at strange times, usually weeknights past 10:30 p.m., sometimes later. I had to be lucky to catch it, but when I did, I would plonk down in front of the 13-inch black-and-white in my bedroom, one hand always on the UHF antenna, and not only get to see trailers for upcoming films, but two critics from Chicago verbally duke it out. “Two thumbs up!” -- their signal for mutual agreement -- was often a disappointment. It meant that an argument hadn’t ensued.

I would end up writing music criticism, in college and elsewhere, but it was film criticism that I grew up watching and reading. The two most influential print critics of my formative years both wrote for the Omaha World-Herald, the only real newspaper that existed in rural Nebraska. Steve Millburg was the first writer whose articles I remember seeking out in that paper, even though it seemed like fellow film critic Peter Citron had been writing there first and would write long after Steve moved away.

Millburg’s easy-going writing style, laced with humor and insight, was a counterpoint to Citron’s bossier, more pretentious prose. Or maybe I’m biased because Millburg also wrote music reviews. Who knows? Somewhere along the way Millburg left the paper and Roger Catlin arrived and I quit reading the OWH.

But I never quit watching Siskel and Ebert. Eventually, their TV show became easier to find, and the duo’s thumbs emerged as the two most valuable body parts in Hollywood.

To me, Ebert didn't emerge as his own man until Siskel died in 1999. I had never sought out Ebert’s written reviews prior to that; they seemed meaningless without Siskel’s pithy counterpoint. But now that Gene was gone, Ebert’s criticism had a new gravitas. If I didn’t agree with him much before, I found he was the only film critic I trusted afterward.

The other reason I began reading Ebert regularly is, of course, because of the Web, which has forever changed the way we consume film criticism. Prior to the WWW, you read your local critic in your local paper -- or watched Siskel and Ebert. Today, you tap open Flixster on your smart phone, see the listing of every movie theater within 30 miles, and each film’s “Tomatometer” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, the online film criticism aggregator that creates a composite rating based on the summation of all the critics’ ratings. Lincoln has an 89 percent Tomatometer rating -- thumbs up.  GI Joe: Retaliation has a 28 percent Tomatometer rating -- thumbs down.

Despite that, I always clicked through to Rotten Tomatoes Top Critics’ listings to see what Ebert thought, and that alone would sway my “go no-go” decision. 

When Ebert lost his jaw to cancer in 2006, I feared it might be the end of his criticism. I’d read about his treatment, saw the post-op photos and wondered if he might throw in the towel on writing, which can be a grueling, lonely experience, especially with a deadline constantly bearing down on you.

But then I remembered why I chose writing in college -- it’s a profession like any other art that you never have to retire from as long as you can keep your wits about you, as long as you have something to say.

And Ebert always had something to say. If anything, his writing became more prolific after his recovery. I read his reviews looking for some fracture -- some hint of impact of his illness -- but never saw one. At least not until the past few years.

Maybe he began looking harder for beauty in all things knowing his days might be numbered, but Ebert’s reviews became more... generous. Films I expected him to lambast he would give three stars. In fact, he rarely gave bone-crushingly negative reviews toward the end. Maybe he was more apt to give filmmakers a break. Or maybe he was just getting tired of seeing lousy movies.

In announcing a “leave of presence” on his website April 2, Ebert said he was going to “slow down” after writing more the previous year than he had in any time in his career -- more than 300 movie reviews in 2012 plus regular blog posts. Instead, “I’ll be able to at last do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”

I assumed that meant he no longer felt obligated to see every movie that opened. He could now avoid the stinkers. The only problem with that plan: Who was going to tell him which ones were worth what was left of his precious time? Who would be his Roger Ebert? In the end, it wouldn’t matter.


Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 03:51 pm
on Tuesday, April 09th, 2013

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