In April of 2023 it will have been 10 years since the passing of author and film critic, Roger Ebert. On April 2nd 2013, he made a post to his website titled “A Leave of Presence.” Describing it does not do it justice, but essentially Roger tells us that his battle with cancer has worsened, and he won’t be able to write as much as he wants to. He also won’t be able to see as many films as he’d like. Nevertheless, he tries to spin this in a positive light, stating that now he can focus on the movies that he actually wants to watch and still plans on continuing to write. Two days later on April 4th, he passed away.
It’s that kind of coincidence- happening- or whatever term you would use for it, that makes you wonder if there’s something in this world beyond our comprehension. Roger Ebert spent his life in a fierce devotion to film, criticism, and discussion. Two days after he has to step away from it, his life ended. It’s almost as if he had a purpose, and when the day came that he could no longer fulfill it, he left this Earth.
You’d be forgiven though if you didn’t realize it’s been a decade since he passed away. Ebert was such a renowned presence on television, in print, and online, that his passing never seems as long ago as it actually was. Even I couldn’t remember what year he passed at first. My mind has divided up major events into the categories of pre-COVID-19 and after the outbreak. I knew Roger passed before the outbreak because I could only imagine what his thoughts would’ve been on how the pandemic affected the movie industry.
So I figured he died sometime in 2016, but I was clearly wrong. And though being off by three years doesn’t seem like it’s too big of a gap, it’s a huge difference when you think about it in terms of films. That’s three years of movies that Roger could’ve reviewed, but didn’t have the chance. He didn’t get to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “The Martian.” He missed being able to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Spotlight.” He was spared from “Fifty Shades of Gray,” “Fantastic Four,” “Mortdecai,” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” And those are all just films from 2015. Now imagine everything he could’ve watched in the 10 years since he passed.
Every loop around the sun that we have been without Roger Ebert, is a year that we have lost something very special. If you have ever watched a film from the time that Ebert was active and then looked online to see what he had to say about it, you know exactly what I mean. Because of how long he’d been a presence in the lives of people and the world of film, hearing what he thought about a movie was like checking in with an old friend; you didn’t have to agree with him, you were just interested to hear what he thought.
Going forward it should be noted, that you can’t really talk about Roger Ebert and his legacy without mentioning his late colleague, Gene Siskel. The two wrote for competing newspapers in Chicago, but were friends and co-hosts for many years across several iterations of their show. I remember watching the review program, Siskel & Ebert when I was a kid. My father hated them. Dad was a massive fan of stupid action films, which are the kind of things Siskel & Ebert could be very hot and cold about. Sometimes they loved them, like “Under Siege” and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.” Other times they hated them, like “Tango & Cash” and “Universal Soldier.” If you ask me, the one major failing of Ebert (and Siskel) was that sometimes they loved movies so much that they couldn’t enjoy cheesy flicks.
Anyway, I watched them every chance I could get despite my father’s bemoaning of them. I think kids have a special attachment to films because they play to the vivid imaginations that children often have. Such is the power of cinema that it can be enjoyed on different levels by different age groups. The chance to see parts of films on television and hear if they were going to be worth your time was fascinating to me then. Fittingly enough, it’s the discussion of movies that I find fascinating today, perhaps even more so than the projects themselves.
But the thing with Roger was that to him, that childhood love of film never seemed to diminish. The love that he had for movies was such that it will likely go unmatched in human culture. Comparing him with Gene shows just how wonderful they both were, and how Roger was special in a way that Gene wasn’t quite on the same level as. Gene often came across almost like he was a professor of film; someone you would go to for understanding the philosophy of movie-making and nitpicking things that he would’ve done better. Roger though came across as the A+ film student in your class that you would want to go see a movie with.
In an interview that the two did with David Letterman, Ebert mentions how he attended more film festivals than Siskel. Gene admitted he doesn’t go to as many of those events as Roger did and there was a good reason for that. Siskel was a family man, married with two daughters. He was also an ardent sports fan, particularly of the Chicago Bulls. Ebert never had any children though and only married later in his life to his beloved wife, Chaz (Gene’s daughters were the flower girls). This isn’t to say that Roger didn’t have any other interests besides film, but it’s easier to say that he didn’t have as many competing interests. He enjoyed writing, reading, sketching, drawing, and cooking. And while those are indeed time commitments, they are nothing compared to the commitments of being a father or a spouse. This gave Roger time to engross himself in film like very few people could do.
It’s not enough to love film though in order to become the kind of critic that Ebert was. I recall my own experiences working at a GameStop and the number of people who would approach me, thinking that they wanted to work there because they loved video games. And while it’s true that love and passion for something counts for a lot, it means very little in a retail position if you don’t know how to sell that passion. The same can be said for criticism, Roger knew how to sell passion better than any of his contemporaries or successors.
The main reason for that is how Roger was just as much a writer as he was a fan of film. While he was a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, his technique transcended the kind of style that is associated with newspaper columns. Through his command of the written word, he could communicate to you what made a film special or detestable. And while he was a very intelligent man, he did not speak or write about film in any kind of elitist way. There wasn’t a sense of superiority or intellectual elitism that one might find in film schools or art houses. Ebert wrote about all film, regardless of how high or low brow it might be, with wit, understanding, and accessibility. Indeed, this is a man who included, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” alongside “Saturday Night Fever” in his list of greatest movies of all time and discussed them both with equally lavish praise. He respected the power of film and his reviews reflected that no matter the genre.
It’s also because of the power of film that he was very concerned with violence in movies. This is something that Gene shared with him and the two discussed this across many titles, especially during the rise of slasher horror movies in the 80s. Roger pointed out the possibility that the victimization of women in movies may have been a response to certain men being afraid of women and their fight to overcome systemic sexism. Additionally, he was concerned about the exposure of violent imagery to children, again understanding that movies can have power and influence. Whether he’s right about that or not is a different discussion but it shows where his heart was. All that said, he was very supportive of violence and sex in cinema when it served a point; that kind of imagery can help tell a story when used effectively. Evidence of this is in how he detested the MPAA’s X rating back in the day. He felt that an X rating relegated a movie to being labeled as pornographic when the act of sex on film is anything but that in the context of a larger story. In essence, that rating was a restriction of creative freedom, an ideal that he was a strong advocate for.
Ebert was also an advocate for diversity in film at a time when no one else really was. Roger and Gene both called out the Academy Award nomination board as being made up entirely of white people, decades before the “Oscars so white” movement started happening. Roger was especially fond of the films of Spike Lee, naming two of the director’s films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” as the best films of their respective years. He also named the Kasi Lemmons film, “Eve’s Bayou” as the best movie of 1997 and criticized the Oscars for “not paying attention” if the film didn’t receive any nominations. It didn’t.
While many critics of Roger’s time revered French cinema (as Roger himself did too) Ebert was very keen on Japanese cinema as well. He recognized Akira Kurosawa as one of the greatest directors of all time, but he also followed the work of Takeshi Kitano, Yasujiro Ozu, and perhaps more importantly, Hayao Miyazaki. Ebert championed “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “My Neighbor Totoro” for years before anime became more mainstream. In particular, he appreciated the way Miyazaki’s films were filled with life and were not afraid to embrace moments of quiet reflection.
Frequently, Ebert would talk about the legitimacy of animation as a form of entertainment for adults. He rightly reinforced the notion that films have the power to take you to places you could never go. Animation was able to do that in a special way that live-action sometimes can’t. A fantastical location or creature can be more believable in animation than if it were crafted in the real world. Our imaginations allow a cartoon to exist without having to live up to the scrutiny of whether it looks “real” or not. He reinforced this idea time and again without wavering, even with the dredge of terrible projects that tried to cajole kids into dragging their parents to the theater. Or to use Roger’s exact words from this review of “The Prince of Egypt,” “What it proves above all is that animation frees the imagination from the shackles of gravity and reality, and allows a story to soar as it will.”
Phrases like the one above further illuminate how strong of a writer Ebert was. His praise could elevate someone’s work with respect and eloquence, while his disdain was notoriously cutting. He understood that words have power and used them to express his love of film in a way that went far beyond it being just his job. And while there are some who think that critics love to hate on films and drag them down, Roger would be the first to tell you that life is too short for bad films. No critic wants to go into a movie and hate it; when you love something, you want to see the best in it and not the worst.
Roger’s approach to criticism was such that it aimed to create an understanding of film and what works and doesn’t work within a movie. The art of criticism is not by nature, a derogatory one or one of praise; it is instead an act of understanding. Through open-minded criticism we start to understand more about expression, the cultural zeitgeist, and the what’s and why’s of the things we like and dislike. Going back to the subject of working in sales and liking something vs. knowing how to sell it; a similar comparison can be made regarding opinions.
We all have things we like and dislike, but why do we or don’t we? It’s not something we immediately give a lot of thought to on a regular basis. Too often we think of things in broad strokes without really analyzing something. Criticism helps us to understand ourselves better and our taste in art. It allows us to express that to others in detailed ways that can be constructive and helpful for the future. This is what Roger was able to do and encourage others to do through his writing and his career on television.
It’s so hard to believe it’s been a full decade since Roger Ebert passed. We’re fortunate that his wife, Chaz, has helped keep Roger’s legacy alive through his website that has archived so much of his writing. We’re also fortunate that a number of people online have uploaded episodes of the various shows Gene and Roger hosted over the years. We also have a number of books that Ebert wrote which have compiled many of his reviews and thoughts on film. To have all this available is a wonderful thing if not slightly bittersweet. They serve as a reminder of the written voice he had, even when his health ailments took away his ability to speak. And with him gone now ten years, we can only wonder what he’d have to say about film today.
There was a period of time between the passing of Gene and the hiring of his eventual replacement, Richard Roeper, where “Siskel & Ebert” had a different intro. You may remember the original beginning to the show which featured Gene at his computer, Roger at his typewriter, and the two men walking through Chicago to meet each other at the theater. Obviously, this intro had to change with Gene’s passing, and in the first few seconds of the new one, we see something special. Roger has upgraded to a computer and we see him from behind, sitting and typing at his desk, presumably working on a movie review. To his left are two framed pictures. One of them is of his wife, Chaz, the other is him and Gene. In those smattering of seconds, we see Roger’s four great loves; Gene, Chaz, writing, and film.
There’s the old adage that states, “everyone’s a critic,” and it’s true, everyone is in some way or form. But there will only ever be one Roger Ebert. The world of cinema and criticism is a better place because he was a part of it, and the world at large a bit sadder because he’s no longer here with us. If there is something beyond the veil of death, I hope that Gene and Roger are there together and hanging out with all the legends of film that they had so much love for. And perhaps one day, in another life, another time, another dimension of being, we’ll see you again Roger, at the movies.