There was a time when, as a teenager, I was relegated to spending my summer afternoons at home. Not old enough to drive and without siblings, relatives or anyone else around to be driven by, I would do my chores in the morning and, on the hottest days, sit inside the house in the afternoon. In Kent, a suburb of Seattle, there were no nearby theaters, and I did not have any dough to see movies anyway, until they came to HBO several months later. Looking back, I can see clearly this was an impetus for my love of films. Acting like an accelerant to this feeling was getting the opportunity, once weekly, to see Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert wax poetic about the movies that they were paid to see.
From the very first I appreciated Siskel. His reactions were more measured, and he had a tendency to give action films a break. Ebert was a tough draw for a while. Abrasive, aggressive and seemingly pushy, he always seemed eager to show his partner where he erred in stating his opinion about the movie they’d both seen. Many times they would come together in agreement, and I could safely conclude a film like Friday The 13th, Part IV: The Final Chapter was not going to be worth my time.
The thing about Siskel and Ebert, though, was no genre was written off. One could expect a fair review if the movie was worthwhile. Contrary to the image they presented at the time of their original show, they actually had a fair amount of respect, and eventually love, for one another. Siskel could be counted on for a somewhat measured response to a film. So calm was his demeanor that it could seem a contrast to the more portly Ebert, worked up in his chair pleading for a case that was not often all that different. When there were differences, the sparks could fly.
Eventually, Siskel was stricken with cancer. His battle was valiant, and Ebert stayed confidently at his side throughout. When he passed on, Ebert tipped his cap and paid tribute by moving on. This time, his counter was Richard Roeper. Steady, if less spectacular than his predecessor, Reoper was a capable replacement. Ebert made the show work by treating his new partner as an equal. He knew what he had and, more importantly, he still cherished his dream job.
Around this time, I was steadily employed, with a steady source of income and, being single at the time had plenty of time for movies. My best friend and I found that we had a common respect for the work of Ebert, and took the opportunity to look backward through his series of Movie Home Companion books. It was at this time I found a new respect for Ebert the man, and a love for his words.
Roger Ebert had a way of bringing you with him on his journey through a movie. His style was unlike any I had ever encountered, and it was a departure from the oration he presented on television. One was not cycled through the typical description of a movie. Sometimes the film got only the barest description at all. Instead, what you got, was a feel for the film and what one should expect from a film of its type. It was through Ebert that I learned that one should judge a film on how well it accomplished what it intended to do, as much, if not more than the type of film it was.
Eventually, as the internet became more prevalent my friend and I discovered Roger Ebert’s online site. It was here we found the glory of The Movie Answer Man. Through this feature I discovered rules to film like “The Economy of Characters,” which fed right into my father’s lesson of a lack of originality in plots. The essence of the rule was that movies did not waste the introduction of a character into a film without a reason. This rule alone removed the “whodunit” question from 90% of the films I have viewed since, but still I am grateful.
The thing I enjoyed most about Ebert’s viewpoint was that he covered movies with no sense of shame in the slightest. Coming from a family that decided if you weren’t out in the woods shooting at things you were of little consequence, this was a wonderful alternative. Having won a Pulitzer for criticizing movies should have felt like the sham of the century. Instead, he took it as something of a given. If it could be considered pride, it was a feeling made legitimate by his continuously serious, but witty approach to his craft. I always loved that about him.
A lifelong liberal, he was not afraid to present his viewpoints into his essays. He managed to keep the delineation clear in his reviews. The result was something as universal as it was relevant. As a result, I found I could agree with him almost as often as I disagreed with him. That was not the point to reading Ebert though. He lived through the process of analyzing film, and it was a wonderful ride to experience life with him. And when he suffered through his last years, he did so with joy. He never acted out of pity or a lack of self-respect. He took all that life had to offer, good and bad, and gave good in return.
Since I decided to follow my muse and start a website, in large part a tribute to the man, I have kept a picture of Ebert and his partner Siskel right by my side. In conclusion to this tribute, I include it here. Years from now, while pressing my own keys and taking my own journey, I will do so with joy. Movies are a worthwhile distraction, if you believe them to be. It’s in his strength of conviction, and even stronger writing that I continue my path, telling my tale about a life as a part-time observer, and full-time explorer.
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with Roger’s own optimistic view written two days before this, his last day. He had to know what he was facing, but he still was looking forward. He never looked back…except for, you know, the reviews.
Even though he may have something to say of this, I sincerely hope that God does indeed bless Roger Ebert.