For many years Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had a TV show. It ran once a week, and they would discuss movies. For those who couldn’t see all the movies they talked about, watching their show was always gold. You’d get to see clips from the movie, and then hear if it was worthwhile (perhaps creating a mental list of what to see in the theater, or rent when it finally came to home video). And like Sesame Street, it was — for an entire generation of film critics — the building blocks for a love of cinema.
I don’t know when I first started watching Siskel and Ebert’s show (sometimes known as At the Movies, though it had several names over the course of its run) but it was something that I was definitely aware of from a very early age. Roger was the fat one, and Gene was the balding one, and they would either praise or bury a film, or get into fights over its relative merits. And as much as it was great to see them praise something to high heavens, it was just as entertaining to see them fight. When Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven had come out, both panned the film. When the end of the year rolled around, Ebert had changed his opinion and included it among his top ten. Ebert said that at the time of his first viewing he was distracted by his upcoming wedding, and hadn’t considered the film with his full attention. Siskel’s rejoinder was that “he liked (Ebert’s) brain more before he got married.” Those were the gems that made the show a must-see for budding young cinephiles.
Though the show had its place on television, Roger Ebert was the better writer (which led to his Pulitzer prize), and the one more in love with cinema. But like anyone, he had his blind spots, and he might not fall in love with all of one’s favorites (it took Ebert a long time to recognize much worth in David Lynch, for instance), but when he recognized a masterpiece like Raging Bull or Do the Right Thing he could make you appreciate both the greatness of the movies and the greatness of his writing. His books were a cornerstone of any young filmgoers pre-internet existence, and when films that faded from memory were wiped from the next year’s edition, it made having each year all that more important.
But for me, one of the biggest impacts Ebert had on my life was an episode he and Siskel did on what letterboxing is. At the time, in the late 80′s, laserdiscs had just been introduced and they explained what aspect ratios were and why it mattered. It led me to purchase a laserdisc player, and understand why cropping and panning and scanning were so deplorable. Twenty-plus years later and no one who is remotely aware of movies would question what it means, but at the time it was a new way to show movies as they were originally intended, and made me appreciate the craft of moviemaking all the more.
More than anything, Ebert was a champion. If he loved something, he used his platform for good, and there are so many films that benefited from that. Be it Hoop Dreams, or Hearts of Darkness, or Crumb, if he cared about a small movie, it meant that an art film would be seen by audiences around the world. And he wielded that power with the weight of knowing what it meant.
Though his TV show was crippled by the passing of Gene Siskel, which led to a number of replacements before he settled on Richard Roeper, Ebert retained his prominence by adapting to the rise of the internet. He was one of the few old guard, mainstream press to understand and embrace the internet for all it was worth.He readily embraced both Twitter and facebook.
Ebert always went in to a movie hoping to love it, but he was never stuffy about it (even if he loved the masters). He was happy to spotlight good genre work when he responded. Perhaps that’s because Ebert also wrote screenplays for Russ Meyer. Ebert was credited on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and also had input on Meyer’s Up and Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixens. And if you haven’t seen those films, the premise of Beneath is that the husband of the main character is obsessed with… well, anal sex. That’s the movie. It’s funny to think that the world’s most famous film critic was also a struggling screenwriter. But Ebert knew that Russ Meyer had a gift for sex films, and recognized that it doesn’t have to be great art to be entertaining.
Ebert was also someone who was comfortable admitting he had fetishes and was happy to talk about sex. During the late 80′s, he would complain about couples having sex against walls, saying that he tried it, and it was uncomfortable for everyone involved. When he said it on his show, Siskel audibly rolled his eyes. But you could count on Roger calling it like he saw it. And he also helped — with his movie man column — note some of the greatest cliches of cinema, specifically the “fruit cart” that always gets hit during a chase scene.
The last couple years saw Roger battle cancer, and it robbed him of his ability to speak and eat solid foods, but his presence was not diminished by this. Earlier this week he wrote a column about his “leave of presence” which suggested he’d still be around, but couldn’t be counted on to review everything. It was a shock that two days later he was already gone. It looks like his last review will be for the Terrence Malick film To the Wonder, which feels like the right movie for Ebert to go out on.
Ebert, with his thumb reviews and his writing, exposed generations to great cinema and the fun of talking about a movie with someone — even if you disagree about its relative worth. Ebert’s impact on film and film culture is immeasurable, and the ultimate proof that critics and criticism can and does matter.
In tribute, here is a link to one of my favorite moments from Siskel and Ebert’s show.