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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Saying Goodbye To Roger Ebert: Episode One

I don’t quite know where to put Roger Ebert’s death right now.

I can’t say that I am shocked. But Roger has taken a step back before, only to come on stronger. I am now guessing that his “leave of presence” note was written over weeks, and as directors have said about films, “escaped” as late as possible rather than being “released.” Roger was not one to give an inch – in terms of his work – if he could help it.

I saw his wife, Chaz, at the Independent Spirit Awards at the end of February and we talked about this year’s Ebertfest. I got the impression that she thought it might be the last one for Roger… whether he attended or not. In recent years, his attendance was not inevitable, but everyone – led by Chaz – carried on as though that recliner at the back of the Virginia Theater that was installed for Roger after he first fought off cancer was filled. And it was, really. Roger’s passion filled it and the room and for five days every year, his entire hometown.

The 15th Annual EbertFest (nee’ The Overlooked Film Festival) will start in just 13 days. It’s been a tough weekend for those of us who were pre-cancer and post-cancer in Roger’s life. The party that Roger and Chaz and Nate (and so many others, especially Mary Susan Britt) started 15 years ago evolved into a bit of a tribute event… everyone thrilled to get to see The Man and to hear a few words from his talking machine, inspired by his passions.

We used to go to Steak-n-Shake, 20 or 30 strong, after the late show each night. Roger told jokes. Roger sang. Roger picked up the tab. Roger took pictures with college kids who often didn’t recognize the stars and great filmmakers who were sitting just feet from them.

Even though he could no longer participate in the grub, the Steak-n-Shake would still put up the “Welcome Roger Ebert” sign. In the last couple years, they didn’t, though his name was emblazoned through the restaurant, the center of their marketing campaign. At first, those of us who used to go with him would go inside and eat, in honor of what was. Then, it just started to feel weird. We were honoring this man’s great pleasure… from which he had forced himself, in an insanely brave way, to move on.

Ebertfest started doing group lunches and dinners for guests of the festival after the first couple of Overlooked years. Back then, Roger hosted and did every Q&A and ran back and forth to the Cultural Center where lunch was hosted. He’d eat something and kibbitz with everyone and make sure that he barely had a moment to breathe. After he stopped eating, Roger still showed up, just to shake hands and offer hugs and to remind us all how alive he really was.

We lost Dusty Cohl, one of the founders of TIFF, and “collaborator” of Roger’s a few years ago. It wasn’t the same. Roger was ill. Chaz was working non-stop. Nate was coming in from Georgia. 70mm prints were getting harder to get from studios. Family reunions get hard when the leaders of the family pass. We still have Joan Cohl (who has been a great force for good in my life) and Chaz, of course… but the four of them were connected… the foursome was a whole.

Roger took me on from just about the start of my career on the internet, 15 years ago. He used to be the star writer for Yahoo! Internet Life. The Hot Button, as it once was known, and roughcut.com, as it once existed, got a lot of praise from him on those pages. He called my column “gossip of the highest order” and that compliment stuck in my craw for… well, it still does. It still comes to mind more often than I wish it would.

As we developed more of a relationship, it got more complicated. I can’t say we were close. There was always an arms length. But there was always a big smile and a hug from Chaz and a moment taken from his busy schedule. A few minutes at TIFF the first year he returned after his throat surgery… he wasn’t being brave… he was living. No giving up. And professionally, he was very generous with me.

I’m going to stop writing now. Try to figure out what I am doing in the days to come. Am I going to Ebertfest? Can I deal with it? Can I deal with not going?

Anyway… who gives a fuck how I feel about it? My friends do, I know. Friends I shared with Roger do, I know. So today, I mourn. Tomorrow, I start to sort out the rest. And I’ll write some more.

Bye, Roger. You left this earth a better man. You gave to others. You embodied your legend. You gave so much of your life to the art form you loved… the only other vice to stay with you to the end being your epic wife, Chaz, who embodies the love and loyalty that every bride and groom dream of on their wedding days. You will be missed in so many ways by so many people.

D

33 Responses to “Saying Goodbye To Roger Ebert: Episode One”

  1. Brian Aranas says:

    Thank you David for that.

    There was always a feeling this day was coming sooner than later but still…it’s a sad day for all film lovers everywhere.

  2. Steven Skolnick says:

    He was the critic for everyman. He will be missed!!!

  3. anghus says:

    I had one interaction with Roger Ebert. I wrote a column about how “two thumbs” turned film criticism into fast food. It took something, reduced it to its most basic components, and franchised it to the masses. The next day he tweeted it to his followers. In the subsequent conversation he said there was “some truth” to the article. These days, people take criticism so poorly (especially the critics). You say one thing even remotely critical about somebody and it turns into an epic hate fest spewing bile back and forth. And here’s a guy at the top of his game, who could have just ignored the whole thing, but instead he throws it out there for discussion.

    To me, that’s the very definition of class. I’d already respected the guy for his body of work, but it was hard not to find a new level of respect for someone who lacked pretension and had no problem engaging in a discussion about film, even if the discussion centered on a negative perception of his impact on the medium in which he worked.

    That kind of class is rare in this field.

  4. Yancy says:

    Ebert gave me the best compliment I’ve ever had, calling something I posted on his blog “a nearly perfect piece of writing” – I’m still dining out on that one.

  5. Don R. Lewis says:

    I just added the following to the Criitwire column that’s going to post but thought I’d share here since you guys are my “film friends.”

    I grew up in Orland, California which is basically an agricultural wasteland in Northern/Central California. I LOVED movies but the theater in our town only played movies in Spanish, cartoons on weekend mornings and the occasional blockbuster but only for 3-4 days. Usually the print was so well-traveled it either broke or burned at some point in the screening. We also only had 3 TV channels at that time and channel 9 was one of them. As a kid who loved movies my only real connection to seeing what was new and exciting in film were a few magazines and Siskel and Ebert on Channel 9. These two guys made me realize that movies were indeed something as awesome, important and worth talking about as I felt they were, even at 8 years old. I was a voracious movie watcher on those 3 basic channels and when I went to someones house with cable, I was an immovable object in front of the TV.

    As a loudmouth little kid I took it upon myself to argue for films I loved with adults who didn’t “get it” and that’s something I learned from Siskel and Ebert. It’s something I still do today whenever I can in life or in print. I won’t lie; as a fellow chubby person, I always liked Roger Ebert more than Gene Siskel. I not only related to his portliness, I also always sensed he loved films for the fun of them and how they hit you in the, well, gut. When he hated something, it seemed personal and the same could be said for when he loved something. He never, ever got cynical or seemed bored in his work and that’s something few can ever say.

    When we finally moved out of Orland to a city with TWO (!) movie theaters, I finally felt like Roger Ebert and I could “talk” about the same things, at least in my mind. I later read all his books and tried to model myself after him, at least in terms of passion for film, as I started to write criticism. When I finally came face to face with him at the Sundance Film Festival several years back, I froze. How could I even begin to tell this guy how much his work had meant to me? I wouldn’t even BE at Sundance let alone writing for a major website if he and Mr. Siskel’s television show hadn’t inspired me. While obviously I was more enamored with writers, directors and celebrities, Roger Ebert was the guy who started it all for me and seeing him in person brought a flood of emotion

    Every year I came back to Sundance, Mr. Ebert was always in the back, left corner of the Eccles Theater and every year I swore I’d say something to him and I never did. I could never rev myself up enough or feel like I’d say anything worthy of a response. But even though I didn’t know him, I kinda know Mr. Ebery would have been kind and gracious to yet another slobbering film nerd he helped create. He will be missed but like the films he was so passionate about, he will live on forever in his writing.

  6. Joe Leydon says:

    There will never again be a film critic as influential as Roger Ebert. Think about that.

  7. Ray Pride says:

    Joe, who could you compare?

  8. anghus says:

    i dont think you can compare. Because while there were critics you could throw into a debate in terms of quality or style, there was no one as influential as Siskel and Ebert.

    They were the Bill Gates of film criticism. The Ray Kroc. The Mark Zuckerberg. They took something that existed and popularized it beyond what heights anyone knew the medium was capable of. They reinvented the idea of what film criticism could be. added some pepper and some punditry, and everything that’s come since then is basically riding in their wake.

    Not everybody followed the mold, but they set up a world where thumbs became rotten tomatoes and where film criticism is reduced to a simple pass/fail mentality. They contributed greatly to this current generation of film and entertainment writers who believe that every film is either an epic success or a horrific train wreck. Once they stuck out those thumbs, the medium was changed forever.

    I can’t even fathom how you could further influence film criticism to a degree that Roger Ebert did.

  9. Hallick says:

    Roger Ebert’s greatest gift was his ability to give back to movies just as much as movies gave to him. He was better than anybody has ever been at conveying exactly what was special and unique and meaningful in a film for him. You wouldn’t always see it yourself of course, but his reviews could still make you feel what he felt to such a convincing degree that you’d second-guess your own opinions and wish you had the wonderful eloquence of his.

    His passing doesn’t change movies, but it does change the life around movies for those of us who have grown up with his presence in our lives all these years. Gene Siskel’s death was a blow that started the end of an era, but this one feels like the end of…something I’m dreading to find the words for.

    If Roger Ebert isn’t given the honorary Oscar his deserves next year, I don’t know what those statues are for anymore.

  10. Hallick says:

    “Joe, who could you compare?”

    The only (slight) comparison I can think of is Robert Hughes. But then that’s a different art form and I don’t really know what his stature in the art world was for certain. I can still tell that it wasn’t nearly the same as Ebert’s in the film world.

  11. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Leonard Maltin is the only other critic I can think of that comes close to the influence of Ebert. But even then, nothing even close to the “Thumbs up/down” impact.

  12. Joe Leydon says:

    Ray Pride: Maybe — repeat, maybe — during a specific point in time, Pauline Kael. And, again, at a specific point in time, Vincent Canby. Otherwise…

  13. Lynch Van Sant says:

    When I was a kid in the 70s, being a big movie fan, I’d spend sunday afternoons watching old Tarzan, Ray Harryhausen, and classic horror movies. When I discovered Sneak Previews on PBS, there were less than 10 channels on tv and that was the only place to find people talking about movies (practically, though we had in Toronto Elwy Yost’s Magic Shadows which aired uncut classics followed by interviews he did with the movie creators and stars). I ravaged libraries for books about movie history and criticism where I discovered Pauline Kael’s review collections. But watching Roger and Gene over the years and picking up Ebert’s annual review books, as well, brought me a lot of joy and knowledge. I’d have lists of movie titles that I’d only know of from reading about them and make it my goal to eventually watch them all.

    Roger could convey his love of movies to others and how the best of them can affect your own life. He also had a way with tearing down the awful trash which robbed him of 2 hours of his life yet doing it with a wicked sense of humor. Of course, no one can always agree with any other person on all movies. I remember being astounded that Ebert hated Blue Velvet and I thought it was a masterpiece. That didn’t mean I stopped respecting his views. In the heavily fragmented mediascape that we have now, there will never be anyone with as much influence and that’s sad. But, we will always have the legacy of his and Gene’s televised shows online forever and his written reviews which are even more expressive and show his genius on movie history and criticism. R.I.P.

  14. Monica says:

    David, you must come to Ebertfest. It will be hard on all of us who are in attendance, but if this is the last one, it needs to go out in grand style. And I think it can be a very beautiful celebration of Roger’s life and work.

  15. Dan R says:

    Very moving. Thanks for sharing!

    I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert in a couple of their different iterations. I cried when Siskel died. I was 17 at the time.
    Almost 14 years later, and this one hurts just as much, if not more. I never met the man, the closest I ever got was standing outside the Chicago Sun-Times, but hey, I got #walkenfactor mentioned on twitter for a moment because of him. That is worth something. I am going to miss reading new thoughts from him, but I am glad we will always have the countless reviews, books and journal entries to look back on. I wish I participated more on the latter. RIP Mr. Ebert.

  16. The Pope says:

    The best thing about Ebert was his enthusiasm for cinema. By which I mean he was neither jaded nor cynical. He never thought the medium was beneath him and, although he had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, he knew that when it came to reviewing that such knowledge was ultimately trivia. For in the end, a critic must also apply the art to life and Ebert knew a lot about life. His wisdom grew as his health diminished (maybe there’s a link there), and in this age of instant data, wisdom and humanity are increasingly rare commodities. I don’t think he was ever trashy like Pauline Kael nor was he snobby like Vincent Canby. Ebert was hearty.

    Let us not lament his passing but rather celebrate what he left us.

  17. Double D says:

    Dan R,
    Very similar. I was a senior in high school when Siskel died. He, Stanley Kubrick and Joe Dimaggio (all HUGE heroes of mine) passed away I want to say within a week of each other.

    Used to stay up late in Houston, TX they used to come on at like midnight on Saturday nights, then later (thank god) on Sunday afternoons, it was one of the few shows I watched regularly. You just had to admire his passion and his ability to take a joke and understand the importance of movies.

    His review of Pearl Harbor is one of the funniest things I ever read.

  18. christian says:

    There was nothing like the 70′s/early 80′s run of Sneak Previews. And man, the clips they showed were looooong. On PBS they had time. Still remember being surprised Ebert chose LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT as one of his “Guilty Pleasures”…

  19. anghus says:

    “His review of Pearl Harbor is one of the funniest things i ever read.”

    I had forgotten about the Pearl Harbor review clamor when McWeeny made claims Ebert didn’t review the film because his show was owned by Disney. Ebert’s rebuttal is hysterical, like watching someone roll up a newspaper and smack a dog on the nose. I’m assuming McWeeny won’t be bringing this up when he writes up Ebert’s obit for Hitfix. If you’ve never read it…

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/9175

    Hilarious.

  20. samguy says:

    Along with Pauline Kael, he was one of the most influential critics that I read – and this was only in the last decade or so through his writings on the web. The most memorable item I remember from the Ask Roger column was his response to the writer who complainted that he had recently been awarding more stars to dopey action movies than smaller more ambitious personal movies. His reply was spot on, as his writings usually were: it was all in what he perceived to be the filmakers’ ambitions. Made sense to me.

    Thumbs up to a great life.

  21. LYT says:

    ” the only other vice to stay with you to the end being your epic wife, Chaz”

    feels a bit weird to call his wife a vice. Surely she’s a virtue, no?

  22. Drew McWeeny says:

    Way to keep it classy, Anghus.

    Boy, what a gotcha, running a link to an article where I was the one who posted every single word of what he wrote back to me and finished it up by saying, “Yep, I was wrong.” My god, the detective work you had to have done to have found such a well-hidden piece of history. I thought by posting that when he sent it in the first place, I had buried it completely, but you found it. Oh, the shame.

    I love that you took the occasion of his passing to find a way to once again be a drive-by piece of shit, Anghus. Let no opportunity pass, sir. Ever.

  23. movieman says:

    I guess I’m too old to have revered/sentimentalized Ebert the way most of you apparently did.
    Like “Sesame Street” and the Muppets, it’s probably a generational thing w/ me.
    When “SS” premiered, I already knew how to read (duh), and found the whole thing awfully childish and twee. Accordingly, I never developed any great love for the Muppets or built up any sentimental attachment to them.
    When Siskel & Ebert debuted on PBS, I was in college and had been exposed to plenty of other movie critics (both on TV and, of course, in print). In fact, it took a few years before I was able to take these Chicago upstarts seriously. (All “real” movie crix–Sarris, Kael, Canby,
    etc.– emanated from New York, right?)
    While I would ultimately develop affection and respect for S&E (I loved the fact that they seemed to take movies as seriously as I did), their media grandstanding and apparent need to constantly be in the spotlight was a tad off-putting at times.
    And I never truly forgave Roger for continuing w/ the syndicated TV show after Gene died. Especially since it meant foisting a know-nothing like Roeper onto the world. (The less said about the final, terrifying iteration of the show w/ that pompous Russian kid and Barbie Doll AP reviewer the better.)
    Roger Ebert had a good, long run.
    I think it’s safe to say that no future movie critic will ever matter as much to so many people.

  24. anghus says:

    “Way to keep it classy, Anghus”

    Says the guy who called this generations most influential critic a corporate stooge.

    Sorry my friend. Double D brought up Pearl Harbor and it made me remember that whole mess. To me, it’s a fond recollection of Ebert, who as i mentioned before in my earlier post was always willing to engage in a discussion or debate, even when it was criticism lobbed at him. You would think a guy at his level of success would just ignore the snide comments or jabs, but he never got to a point where he was unwilling to engage. He didn’t ignore people or believe himself to be above the debate, and like Joe said in his piece, he was willing to admit that opinions and his own perceptions changed over time. And i thought that was a pretty good example of what made him so great. I suppose everyone recollects differently. I think you learn a lot about people when you see how they deal with conflict. And so much of his career was based around the idea of conflict. The first review i watched after Ebert passed was his Die Hard review. A movie Siskel liked but Ebert blasted for ‘bad writing’ and bad pacing. Such a good example of their relationship.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNM7yG5X9IQ

    The Pearl Harbor example is just another one to me, that showed how good the man was with conflict. Unfortunately, you were the heckler in this scenario and you got called out by the headliner.

  25. Joe Leydon says:

    “In fact, it took a few years before I was able to take these Chicago upstarts seriously.”

    Movieman: Did it ever occur to you that Siskel and Ebert had a lot to do with you — and me — ever having any chance of being taken seriously, even though neither of us ever had a New York base?

  26. movieman says:

    Hence, the respect and admiration I eventually developed for them, Joe.
    For “mainstreaming” movie critics and criticism.

    Growing up in NE Ohio w/ a dearth of local critics, I naturally gravitated to the ones w/ the loudest voices (and most visible nat’l profile):
    Kael and John Simon for their regular appearances on the Dick Cavett Show (and Kael in the New Yorker, of course); Canby and Sarris because I was already addicted to the NYT and Village Voice in junior high; etc.
    At the time, the New York media was the only media that really mattered. And the one that got the most national traction.
    Chicago, Boston, LA, etc.-based critics never entered into the equation for me because they simply weren’t very accessible.
    In the pre-digital/internet age, Siskel and Ebert were essentially local phenoms before going “wide” on PBS. Hence my joking reference to them being “upstarts” when I first discovered them on TV since, for all intents and purposes, they were largely unknown commodities to me.
    The only thing I knew about Ebert at the time was that he’d won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and was given a shout-out in Rex Reed’s Holiday Magazine review of “Gaily, Gaily.”

  27. anghus says:

    i’ve been watching siskel & ebert reviews on and off all day. Check out Gene Siskel’s stache as he reviews Network.

    Gene looks like a lumberjack. Roger looks like he’s getting ready to appear on the Match Game.

  28. Joe Leydon says:

    Must admit: First movie critic I ever saw on TV was Judith Crist on The Today Show. Well, her and Al Shea.

  29. anghus says:

    I wonder how many people’s first TV critic experience involved Gene Shalit?

    the horror…

  30. cadavra says:

    At the risk of being accused of making this about me, let me just say that one of the greatest moments of my life–possibly the greatest–was when Roger referred to me in one of his columns as “my favorite Hollywood executive.” (I e-mailed him, “Who came in second?” He replied, “What makes you think there was a second?”) He was a giant in a world full of midgets, and we shall not see his like again.

  31. movieman says:

    Judy, Judy, Judy.
    Ahhhhhhh.

    Anybody else notice how Janet Maslin now looks and sounds exactly like Judith Crist back in her Today Show heyday?
    How/when did that happen?

  32. anghus says:

    “when Roger referred to me in one of his columns as “my favorite Hollywood executive.” (I e-mailed him, “Who came in second?” He replied, “What makes you think there was a second?”)”

    That’s awesome.

    You mentioned how we “shall not see his like again.”

    That’s all i’ve been thinking about the last couple of days. Everybody had Ebert to turn their gaze to as the authority, as ‘the voice’, and no one has ever stepped in to fill that void. Has the internet splintered the audience so much that there isn’t anyone to really be that person anymore?

    In most fields there’s a successor of sorts. Someone who is there to fill in the void. Kronkite leaves and you get Rather. Brokaw leaves there’s a Williams waiting in the wings. But with so many avenues for film discussion and reviews and the internet being the destination for entertainment news, there’s no one to step into that role.

    There won’t be another Ebert just because of his talent or personality, but the market no longer exists for someone to be elevated to his level of notoriety. The market has splintered in so many different directions and no one has built the same level of respect or the same sized audience that would place them at the top of the critical field.

    It’s odd to think you have this voice that so many people turned to: fans, critics, filmmakers, people working in the entertainment industry who looked to Roger Ebert for his thoughts and reviews. And that voice can’t and won’t be replaced. That’s probably as fitting a tribute and a testament to his legacy than anything else: He is literaly irreplacable. In almost any given line of work somebody could stop working and there would be someone to carry the torch. A website shuts down, there’s another one rehashing the same eight stories a day. A CEO passes away, there’s someone there to step in and take over. Ebert’s passing is so unique because he helped redefine film criticism, and decades later nobody was able to come within a country mile of building a body of work with the same degree of respect and popularity. No one is waiting in the wings to take over as the most respected voice in film analysis.

    How often does that happen?

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