Saturday, April 6, 2013


     Two days before his death, Roger Ebert wrote that he was about to take “a leave of presence.” He will be greatly missed. The depth of his passion for film and filmmakers made terms like “reviewer” or “critic” inapplicable; he was more of an advocate for movies he loved. And while he was an exceptional and witty wordsmith, he seldom seemed to revel in his own cleverness or profundity. The pictures came first.

     In 1967, along with The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, Ebert -- in his first year at The Chicago Sun-Times -- helped rescue Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE, writing a rave review after The New York Times and Newsweek savaged the film. Readers ignored the stodgier critics and came around. Now, of course, Penn’s movie is considered a classic, as well as a paradigm of modern film editing.

     A year later, Ebert went to bat for Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, reviewing it twice! The first time, he called it, “an important act of filmmaking” and said it “presents violence in such definitive (indeed, even excessive) terms that it becomes, paradoxically, a statement against violence and a reaction to it.” The second time, he watched it with a paying crowd and mused that its hyperrealism and excess made viewers aware that they were watching a motion picture. As self-reflexive cinema, the critic wrote, it called into question cheering for traditional Western heroes played by the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Hopalong Cassidy.

     For such insightful and impassioned writing, Roger Ebert received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1978. But he became truly famous reviewing films on television with colleague Gene Siskel, first on PBS’ “Sneak Previews” (also in 1978) and, subsequently, on “At The Movies.” Tuning in to Siskel and Ebert’s debates exposed audiences to the joys of discussing what they’d seen at the multiplex. Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue between Clarence and Alabama, early in TRUE ROMANCE, may be a lasting tribute to “At The Movies”:

Clarence: ...after I see a movie, I like to get a piece of pie and talk about it. It’s sort of a tradition I have. Do you like to get a piece of pie after you see a good movie?

Alabama: Yeah, I love to get pie after a movie. 

Clarence: Would like to go get some pie with me? Alabama: Yeah, I'd love some pie.

     Ebert consistently argued for accepting a motion picture on its own terms. “When you ask a friend if HELLBOY is any good,” he wrote, “you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to MYSTIC RIVER, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to THE PUNISHER.” Thus he didn’t expect ANACONDA to be CITIZEN KANE.

     Unlike most American critics, Roger Ebert had experience in the trenches of Hollywood. He wrote the cult classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, directed by Russ Meyer, as well as Meyer’s BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE SUPERVIXENS and UP!. So, to a degree, Ebert was an “industry insider.” This enabled him to love filmmakers, not envy them. And the feeling was mutual. Werner Herzog dedicated his 2008 film ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD to Roger Ebert. And in 2009, the Directors Guild of America made him an honorary life member.

     I was privileged to begin an occasional email relationship with Ebert when I started this blog. His response to the first post he liked was a pithy: “tweeted it.” More often, when he didn’t like a post, he simply didn’t tweet it. (He was so economical a writer, I told myself, he could say “meh” in less than one word.) When discussing a particular film, or baseball, on the other hand, he was more effusive.

     Roger Ebert was one of a kind: an American cineaste. Gone much too soon. Rest in peace.