I watch movies the way I do because of Roger Ebert. I started watching the venerable Chicago Sun-Times film critic verbally spar with Gene Siskel, his counterpart at crosstown paper the Chicago Tribune, when the two were hosts of the PBS program Sneak Previews. This was before the direction each of their thumbs pointed was keenly watched by studios, before the breadth of their influence reached a level that arguably exceeded that of any film critics that came before. These were simply two guys–equally passionate, equally smart, equally committed to exploring the value of cinema in all its forms–talking about movies with an uncommon depth and enthusiasm. Casual viewers may have been most excited when the discussion escalated into a heated argument (I liked it to too, long carrying the memory of being thoroughly amused when the banter over Back to the Future III briefly got stuck on whether it was even reasonable to consider its worth if it were “just a western”), but it was the pleasure of watching people talk about films as if they mattered that kept me coming back. Indeed, it was truly transformative for me.
I kept watching as they took their show through different iterations, first into syndication through the Tribune Company as At the Movies and then with Buena Vista Television by the mid-eighties. At that point, the stature of the critics had grown to such a level that their names took prominence in the title: Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, the “movies” almost there as an afterthought. Many people were watching–and a lot did watch–less to get an overview on the film and more because they wanted to see the fights, which, truth be told, happened less often than reputation held. By and large, they agreed. And they seemed to come even more in line with one another as the years passed, the natural evolution of a long-term partnership defined as much by mutual respect as fierce competition. On at least one occasion, that influencing of opinion even happened on the spot.
I’m most grateful to the shows the men presided over for exposing me to the full array of films that were out there, including those that were likely never going to make it to my home screen or any theater to which I had reasonable access. With a half-hour to fill every week, the critics were able to delve into art house fare: independent cinema, documentaries, foreign films. This was obviously the material that got them most energized, sometimes exhibiting a clear and fascinating gratitude for their jobs. Because they were paid to watch everything, they had the chance to make these wonderful discoveries, not just from directors with twisty names who I now understand were part of the grand legacy of film largely unknown to the general moviegoing population, but the odd and offbeat from first-time (or one-time) directors working with miniscule budgets and the barest expectations that anyone would see their work. Ebert and Siskel (if there was ever a day to switch their standard billing order, it is today) cracked open a door for me to a previously unknown world of movies that had very different boundaries than I was used to. I was fascinated, and I pursued these new possibilities with as much vigor and rigor as I could.
When I got a chance to co-create and co-host a film review show on the radio, my partner and I clearly, unashamedly modeled our program on what Ebert and Siskel were doing. How could we approach it any other way? They were the gold standard, which could be definitively proved by watching any of the other review teams that followed in their wake, often taking over the shows the Chicago critics had abandoned (I remember completely giving up on At the Movies after Rex Reed, who’s proven his idiocy many times over the years, contributed to the on-air review of Throw Momma From the Train by noting he hadn’t seen the film but he was sure he’d love it because of his longstanding appreciation for the work of Anne Ramsey). Ebert and Siskel had become celebrities, certainly more famous than many of the actors and directors they discussed on the show, but their notoriety never caused them to stray from being critics first and foremost. They were serious about their task and didn’t pander just because they were on television. We tried to do the same from our modest perch on the airwaves.
Ebert provided an especially helpful touchstone to me during those years on the show. I had a copy of one of his Video Companion collections of reviews, mostly because there was no IMDb, making Ebert’s thick tome (I also fondly remember Ebert chastising Siskel once for referring to it as “little” on the air by saying, “It’s a big book, Gene”) a handy reference for tracking through filmographies. It had another important use, though. Whenever I was stuck in the writing process, struggling to find a way to approach some film that drained my energy and ideas with equal force, I pulled the purple paperback off the shelf and turned to Ebert’s review of Stormy Monday, an entirely forgettable Mike Figgis thriller from 1988. Ebert’s piece was a thing a beauty, addressing the shortcoming of reviews in capturing the tone, feel, rhythm and visual impact of films. In the writing, Ebert bucked against the tiresome necessities of review writing, such as recapping the plot, while simultaneously finding ways to adhere to that need and expectation. I never tried to write anything like it, but simply reading the piece reminded me of all the possibilities that could be brought to the process of composing a review. It broke through my block every time.
In recent years, Ebert’s importance as a film critic was diminished, in part because of the great equalizer of the internet, but also in part because he became a little too much of a softie. Especially after his illnesses started to mount and exact a terrible physical toll, Ebert seemed to enjoy films more frequently. Or, to put it another way, more uncritically. His year-end best of lists (which was, to be fair, a task he’d long identified as something he didn’t like) became pile-ups of titles so robust that they practically negated the concept of “best.” If he was less vital as a critic, though, he was more vital as a general contributor to the wider discourse, including his gadfly commentary against the rightward drift of the political landscape. At about the same time that the cancer in his jaw asserted itself in such a way that it led to the loss of his physical voice, a whole new world of online discussion was opening up, to the good fortune of us all. His physical capabilities savaged, Ebert became a striking, strident, compulsively fascinating online presence though his own website and Twitter. In a redemptive irony, at a time when his ability to speak was taken from him, Ebert’s voice was more prominent than ever. As a famed and fantastic Esquire article demonstrated, he was fearless in not shrinking away.
News of his death comes exactly one day after he posted an announcement of “A Leave of Presence,” acknowledging escalating health problems but also filled with plans for the future, including a new stab at reviving At the Movies, a show that Ebert never quite accepted was unworkable without him in one of the balcony seats. Ebert may be gone, but that presence he asserted will long be felt, not just because his words will live on, but because for many of us, myself included, the reason we sit in darkened theaters as often as we do can be directly attributed to the way he urged us to do so, the way he explained the thrill that can be had from the act of watching with our minds wide open.