When in the midst of discussing life choices, one thing people tend to ask me is, “When did you first ‘know’ you knew what you wanted to do?,” to which I sometimes reply, “I didn’t find film journalism; film journalism found me.” At 13, when my parents practically forced, on top of my Bar Mitzvah, a second rite of passage in which I would necessarily watch The Godfather, I knew that movies had a profound effect on my mind, heart and spirit. But for many years and many films after, I was never sure where my experiences with (and at) the movies would ultimately take me. It wasn’t until the tail end of my sophomore year of college that I began to seriously read film critics and realized that, not only could I write about film, but that I ought to be writing about film. Since then, I’ve read, watched and listened to critics of all stripes, but, as for many others who were bitten by the same bug that bit me, Roger Ebert was my gateway drug to the practice.
Alongside his sparring partner, the late Gene Siskel, on their iconic At the Movies review show, Ebert reviewed films big and small, from the arthouse to the grindhouse, and all the multiplex fodder in between. Though he could be devastatingly brutal in his assessments, Ebert subscribed to the credo that movies be judged on the degree to which they succeed at what they set out to do. He never came in prematurely expecting to hate a film he hated, or love a film he loved; he wished he could love them all, and simply let each film wash over him, for better or for worse. Though Ebert, at first strictly a newspaper man for the Chicago Sun-Times starting in 1967, and Siskel, Ebert’s rival at the Chicago Tribune, started their broadcasts (then tentatively titled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, and later, Sneak Previews) with a tense, shaky rapport, it was that deep care and purity of spirit about the movies that allowed each of them to work through their kinks and bugs and form an inimitable on-air chemistry.
Over the years, the fallacy that Ebert was a detached curmudgeon who despised genre films became widely perpetrated, but little to no evidence can support such a claim. Never mind that he gave his coveted four-star rating to masterworks like John Carpenter’s Halloween (“an absolutely merciless thriller, so violent and scary I would compare it to Psycho,” he wrote) and The Exorcist – who else as influential as he could give it up to the “oddly moving” transcendence of Lucky McKee’s May, or tip his hat to the “shamelessly effective” killer kid opus Orphan? Ebert’s crusade against the so-called “Women in Danger” (see parts one and two here) films of the 1980s like Friday the 13th, Don’t Answer the Phone! and I Spit On Your Grave, though perhaps a bit prescriptive, helped further a necessary and important conversation in cineaste circles about women’s agency (or lack thereof) on the big screen. It comes as no surprise, then, that Ebert also co-wrote the female-centric screenplays for sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979).
Following the passing of Siskel in 1999, Siskel & Ebert, now Roger Ebert & the Movies, would become a haven for burgeoning critics eager to substitute for Ebert’s former partner. Among them: Ain’t it Cool News’s Harry Knowles, former New York Times critic and host of KCRW’s The Treatment Elvis Mitchell and Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper, who would eventually become Ebert’s mainstay co-host on the newly titled Ebert & Roeper and the Movies. Especially moving upon consideration is a segment during that transitional period co-hosted by the San Francisco Examiner’s Wesley Morris; while at the time, the shrill up-and-comer’s take on South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was dismissed by Ebert, Morris would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism at The Boston Globe in 2012, becoming the first writer in history do so since Ebert achieved the feat in 1975.
Since battling thyroid cancer in 2002 that eventually led to a necessary surgery that removed a portion of his jaw, Ebert became a champion of Twitter and other social media, using the platform and his blog as extensions of his voice to comment on everything from film, to politics, to the perceived artistic merits of video games, to the rice cooker. On top of maintaining Ebertfest, his annual film festival in Champaign, Illinois, Ebert ushered in yet another era of film criticism, this time in the online arena, with his “Far-Flung Correspondents” project, which featured the writing of film critics across the country and the globe, from Paris, to Korea to the Philippines and beyond. For me, whose gateway drug was Ebert, invaluable encouragement came in the form of the support of Wael Khairy, Ebert’s Egypt-based critic, who kindly praised one early piece of mine on the films of Martin Scorsese via Twitter (small world).
According to Ebert’s website, rogerebert.com, the archive hosts 5,500+ movie reviews, 700+ essays, interviews and film festival articles, 2,300+ Answer Man question and answers, 600+ Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary entries, and 400+ critical debates. For those waiting for the movies to find them, this vault of insight is an ideal place to meet them halfway.
– By Max Weinstein