A week ago today, one of my biggest writing influences, world famous Chicago author/critic/former television personality Roger Ebert passed away at age 70 after a long public battle with cancer. I learned the sad news of his death from the Facebook status of a fellow local critic, Kenneth R. Morefield (1morefilmblog.com):
“Somehow it seems fitting that I should hear of Roger Ebert's passing in a press room full of people who love film. May we all be blessed to be able to do what we love until the moment we can't do anything at all. Rest in peace.”
I was in that same press lounge with Morefield at Full Frame when he wrote this, and I immediately lost interest in the screener I was watching. In fact I thought about blowing off all the documentaries I was going to see, just so I could read all the many memorials that people were posting online. But the spirit of Ebert reminded me that I had a job to do, one that was extremely inspired by Ebert’s thrill and passion for discovering new films and their makers.
Now, I’m back at home with a box full of videotapes, a few of Ebert’s movie guides, and I’m pouring over the man’s prolific career. I’m happy that the man left so much behind - from thewrap.com: “Roger Ebert by the Numbers: 7,202 Reviews, 3 Screenplays, 1 Pulitzer...” plus all his blog posts and tons of YouTube clips including hundreds of segments from his shows with the late great Gene Siskel (Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, Sneak Previews, At the Movies), and lots of the man doing comic bits on Letterman, and many other programs – that we can have to refer to forever.
I don’t think Ebert was the first film critic I ever read (my family got Time Magazine so I think it was Richard Schickel), but he was the first that I felt I had a connection to, mainly because of his work on television. When I got to reading his reviews, I loved how conversational and unpretentious they were. The writing in film magazines such as Film Comment (a mag that inspired the name of this blog) was often above my head, but Ebert never was. He used casual talk, sometimes the parlance of our times, like when he wrote that the ending to Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE was “really off the wall.”
Over the years I’ve read a number of his over 2 dozen books, and thumbing through one, a beat copy of the 1990 Edition of “Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion,” I was reminded of a long going argument I’ve had with the man. I should say it’s a very one-sided argument, but it’s about his 1972 review of HAROLD AND MAUDE.
In my copy, 20 years ago, I checked off by movies I’d seen (or had on VHS, I forget which) with a black pen, but by HAROLD AND MAUDE I also added a big question mark. I was obviously baffled by Ebert’s one and a half star review of what I still think is one of the greatest movies ever, and that led to me writing to him several times through the “Movie Answer Man” department on his website about whether he still disliked the film all these years later.
I figured that he’s changed his mind about his initial reaction to a number of later well regarded cult movies, most notably BLADE RUNNER in which he wrote in a “it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon,” but then that movie got 3 stars the first time around. Still, I thought he may come to see the light about HAROLD AND MAUDE, as its grown such stature over the years, and he loved the work of film makers who were very influenced by it like Wes Anderson. If he stood by his original review, which also bothered me by not mentioning the terrific wall-to-wall soundtrack by Cat Stevens at all, then that would be interesting too. So hoping that I’d someday get an answer I kept posing this question to him in different ways, but I never got any reply. Maybe, that’s the real answer, I dunno.
Writing this, I realize that my trying to engage with Ebert about whether he still held the same viewpoint says a lot about this big conversation about movies that I love taking part in.
Ebert’s reviews always felt like a guy casually, yet with complete concentration, starting a conversation about the most recent movie he saw. He was always full of ideas and insights even if the films he was talking about sucked, and his everyman humor spread a lot of warmth even if you strongly disagreed with him (hello, HAROLD AND MAUDE).
I will miss cyber-needling him about his 42-year old opinion of a hippy dippy era Hal Ashby movie that did pretty damn well without his endorsement (it was released as a Criterion Collection Edition Blu ray last year, for Christ’s sake!), but seriously I’ll really miss his amazing weekly output much more. It was so amazing that being unable to speak due to illness didn’t rob him at all of his voice as a writer. Ebert wrote several reviews a week, along with lots of blogging, and 31,260 tweets (!), so for much of his last decade with us it never felt like he had been silenced.
That’s what makes it so hard to deal with, that he is really gone now.
I just know that I’ll still have that instant reflex with whatever movie of the moment to go to his site to get his take on it for a long-ass time.
R.I.P. Roger Ebert
R.I.P. Roger Ebert