Roger Ebert, 1942 – 2013

ebert pulitzer from abc news (1)

I asked Ian Mantgani to write an obituary for us, commemorating the life and achievements of Roger Ebert who died today, aged 70. Here are Ian’s words, and some videos – the second of which I selected, and believe in passionately. Ian starts with a quote from Ebert himself.

What kinds of movies do I like the best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. The only true ending is death. Any other movie ending is arbitrary. If a movie ends with a kiss, we’re supposed to be happy. But then if a piano falls on the kissing couple, or a taxi mows them down, we’re supposed to be sad. What difference does it make? The best movies aren’t about what happens to the characters. They’re about the example that they set.

The ending has come. Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. The goodness endures. Ask almost any film reviewer working today, and they will tell you Roger Ebert was an example for them.

As film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert became in 1975 the first ever person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. It was in the 1980s, through an iconic TV show that went through many incarnations but was most popularly known as Siskel & Ebert, that he and Gene Siskel became internationally famous. Sometimes they shouted over each other. Some people thought they hated each other. What was always clear was that they loved films, and inspired the generation that grew up watching them to know that films could be talked about in an intelligent yet relatable way.

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They were famous for their thumbs. “Two thumbs up!” “Two thumbs down!” Someone once asked Roger and Gene which one of them had the idea to grade with thumbs. Roger deadpanned: “That was me. And before me, the Romans.”

Ebert’s style embodied intelligence, sharp wit, sensitivity and knowledge. But it rolled off the page with ease, and will be remembered for rejecting any arbitrary dividing line between the voice of an average guy and the voice of a sensitive, lyrical expert. He was known, in the early days, for coming into the Sun-Times offices an hour before deadline, furiously typing his copy, and turning it in without checking it. Yet he came out with beautiful prose: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”

He studied English as the University of Illinois, where he was the editor of their paper, the Daily Illini. He taught for a year in South Africa. He got the job of Sun-Times film critic in 1967 at the age of 25. On his first year on the job, he was part of the wave of critics who championed Bonnie and Clyde when that was a line in the sand between fuddy-duddy critics like Bosley Crowther and the hip crowd of Pauline Kael. That year he also saw Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, and predicted Scorsese might become a great director.

siskel and ebert

Over the next few decades Ebert, and Siskel along with him, championed not just Scorsese but filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Robert Altman and Spike Lee. They were fierce advocates for films they believed might not, but could and should, find an audience. Like Halloween, My Dinner with Andre, Shoah, Leaving Las Vegas and The Last Seduction. They would not shut up about a Chicago basketball documentary called Hoop Dreams, to the point where it not only became a box-office hit, but there was something of a national scandal when it was not nominated for Oscars. The director of Hoop Dreams, Steve James, is now making a documentary film of Ebert’s life.

It was a life that included dating Oprah Winfrey, and advising her to take her show into syndication – a decision that would prove crucial to one of the world’s great fortunes. A life that included writing the screenplay for Russ Meyer’s tits-and-pills satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and an unproduced screenplay for the Sex Pistols called Who Killed Bambi? It was a life that involved heavy drinking, which Ebert wrote about beautifully in a retrospective of La Dolce Vita.

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age. When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

And yes – Ebert wrote a newspaper column, featured in a TV show and also had time to go through movies frame by frame. He was also a devoted husband to Chaz, a Chicago trial lawyer who he married in 1992. He was an early adopter of Apple computers and of the Internet, and one of the earliest champions of online criticism. He quoted writers like myself, James Berardinelli and Jim Emerson before the word “blog” even existed. He started his own film festival, ‘Ebertfest,’ and performed DVD commentaries for films such as Citizen Kane and Alex Proyas’ Dark City, of which he was one of the first and most fervent supporters.

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Roger and Gene were so well known in the movie biz they got shout-outs from David Letterman and Whoopi Goldberg on two different Oscarcasts. They were such hometown heroes that in 1995 a section of Chicago’s Erie Street was renamed Siskel & Ebert Way. In 1998, though, Siskel died from complications following a brain tumour. Roger missed Gene greatly – he wrote that the men’s initial rivalry had “deepened into friendship and love.”

Siskel’s death didn’t slow Ebert down. He continued to review 300 films per year and run Ebertfest. He helped found the Gene Siskel Movie Center, now a popular Chicago cinema. After years publishing reviews on the Sun-Times webpage, Ebert started a new website with his own domain name.

In 2006, he suffered his own health complications. After several operations for a recurrent salivary-gland cancer, his jaw and throat collapsed. Reconstructive surgery saved his life but left him unable to eat or speak – ironic, for a man known for his portly frame and willingness to talk. Again, he didn’t slow down. He continued to go to the movies. He joined and became popular on Twitter. He wrote philosophical blogs about his past and present, and what was left of his future:

I will pass away sooner than most people who read this, but that doesn’t shake my sense of wonder and joy.

ebert and chaz from reuters

Just yesterday, Roger announced his intention to take a “leave of presence” – stepping down from a full-time role at the Sun-Times, but continuing to review selected films, and starting a new venture, ‘Ebert Digital.’ I guess he was true to his word – he has left us, but the impression he has left is still present.

Some genre fans will forever hold him in contempt for bashing such slasher films as Friday the 13th, accusing them of idiocy and misogyny. For all his sometime cool, he could also be an obtuse moralist, writing rather preachy, dunderheaded reviews of the edgier fare of the 70s and 80s, such as Goodbye Uncle Tom, The Hitcher and The Exterminator.

Many wannabe sophisticates will continue to bemoan Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs – it was a common refrain that they somehow ‘ruined’ film criticism by simplifying and popularising it. I prefer blogger Matt Singer’s assertion that they were a “gateway drug” into criticism.

Most of us will remember Ebert’s skill, his humanity and his reach. I remember reading him on the Microsoft Cinemania CD-ROM, and disappearing into his work throughout the summer of 1995. I remember meeting him in 2002 – someone asked for his autograph, and he was so gracious, he pointed to me and said, “You should get his autograph too.” I remember him turning me on to films as diverse as All About Eve, El Topo and To Live and Die in L.A.

And I remember straightforward but beautiful, profound quotes like the ones below.

Color is too realistic. It is too distracting. It projects superfluous emotional cues. It reduces actors to inhabitants of the mere world. Black and white (or, more accurately, silver and white) creates a mysterious dream state, a simpler world of form and gesture. Most people do not agree with me. They like color and think a black-and-white film is missing something. Try this. If you have wedding photographs of your parents and grandparents, chances are your parents are in color and your grandparents are in black and white. Put the two photographs side by side and consider them honestly. Your grandparents look timeless. Your parents look goofy.

All of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge. A week ago I was in Calcutta, where I saw mile upon square mile of squatter camps in which hundreds of thousands live generation after generation in leaky huts of plastic, cardboard and scrap metal, in poverty so absolute it is impossible to see any hope of escape. I do not mean to equate the misery of those hopeless people with a movie; that would be indecent. But I was deeply shaken by what I saw, and realized how precious and precarious is a happy life. And in such a mood I watched “Apocalypse Now.

How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.

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