Growing up in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I did not realize how seriously the movies were taken until I saw a little show on PBS called Sneak Previews. It featured two movie critics from Chicago, easily identified as the skinny guy (Gene Siskel) and the fat one (Roger Ebert).
True, they gave the world the now-often-derided moview review shorthand of thumbs up and thumbs down. But in between the prestidigitation were passionate, enlightening conversations about films destined to become classics such as Raging Bull and Ordinary People, and some not so much — I remember being a bit disappointed the Mad Magazine movie Up the Academy got a fairly quick and dismissive thumbs down.
Ebert and Siskel’s show soon became the commercial, syndicated At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and continued to show that movies were something to be passionate about, and people could disagree without being disagreeable. They and my hometown newspaper critic, The Virginian-Pilot’s Mal Vincent, were my early film education, and undoubtedly helped lead me to where I am today.
When I started working toward a career in journalism, with the hopes of breaking into arts and entertainment writing, I discovered the Pulitzer Prize-winning, entertainment journalism icon that was Ebert, who died last week after a long and heroic battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands.
The disfigurement and loss of the ability to eat, drink or speak after numerous cancer surgeries would have led many to retire from the pressures of a day job, and living life on deadline is pressure. But in some ways it seemed to invigorate Ebert and give him a stronger sense of purpose both in his film reviewing and broader political and cultural commentary. His work became a lesson in overcoming obstacles and using the platform he was given, as much as his previous work was a lesson in developing taste, discernment and an independent voice.
Listening to Fresh Air’s tribute to Ebert on Friday, he reiterated a philosophy of reviewing I have heard him articulate before and should be a guide star to anyone who takes up the craft of reviewing: “You have to realize you’re not writing for the filmmakers. You’re writing for the potential film audience. And I would much rather hurt somebody’s feelings who made the picture than send somebody to see a movie and spend two hours of their life seeing a movie that I don’t think is worth seeing.”
This is a man who published two books filled with scathing reviews: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (2000) and Your Movie Sucks (2007), the latter being a frequently intriguing look at the role of a high-profile critic frequently dealing with the people he trashed. But those were validated by the numerous raves for films he thought were important for people to see, and vice versa.
In 2005, I was at the Toronto International Film Festival’s screening of Elizabethtown, and I spotted the unmistakable Ebert on his way into the theater. It was an electric moment thinking I would be in the same screening as the icon. And it was tempting to go up and tell him what his work had meant to me and how it influenced my career.
But how many times had Ebert heard that from many, highly accomplished scribes? Anyone who does this sort of job, chronicling culture, owes Ebert a debt for raising the profile and seriousness of this profession. It was a job he seemed to have to do, particularly as he confronted the challenges of his last few years. And it was a job he defined.