Roger Ebert has died. I say these words with a heavy heart. For me, Ebert was not just a man who offered his opinion about mass market entertainment. He was a figure that helped shape the view of the medium. No longer are films merely dismissed as two-hours-of escapist entertainment punctuated by trailers and requests for moviegoers to “please turn off all cell phones.” They were works of art that could be studied, debated and analyzed, like a classic novel or a painting at the Art Museum.
I only met Roger Ebert once.
It was at a celebration of Barnes & Nobles’s 10th year at its Lincoln Park location. I had brought with me two books for Roger to sign. And when I met him face-to-face, I had to show off my own encyclopedic knowledge of classic film.
“I’ve been watching a lot of Billy Wilder lately,” I said. “I think Double Indemnity is his best film, but I have a strong liking for Some Like it Hot as well.”
Without skipping a beat he responded, “You should definitely see One, Two, Three with James Cagney. It’s one of his less heralded gems.”
The moment crystallized for me the uniqueness of Roger Ebert. He was a man who knew movies like a cardiologist would the chambers of the heart, and turned his passion into a career that influenced generations of movie lovers.
I first began reading his reviews when I was all of 6 years old. I was curious about the trailer I had seen for a certain comedic-horror film about ghost-chasing exterminators in New York. His review was glowing, saying that the film (Ghostbusters) was “an exception to the rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy.” From there, I began to follow Ebert’s reviews every Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times. Even when I disagreed with them (he did recommend Cop and a Half), the amount of skill and craftsmanship in his writing was worthy of some of the great humorist like P.J. O’Rourke.
He provided substantive, detailed accounts of each film’s virtues (or deep artistic pitfalls). His reviews that I would rank among my favorites are too numerous to count. I enjoyed his evisceration of Punisher: War Zone. He hilariously pointed out that in one scene in a factory there are two adjacent work stations, one doing glass crushing and the other doing meat processing. He wonders what type of factory would have those two jobs done at close-by conveyors and then wrote, “I was looking for the saltwater taffy mixer.”
Along with winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 — the same year the syndicated show “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” with Gene Siskel debuted — Ebert also has the distinction of actually having made a feature film. It was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970, directed by Russ Meyer from a script by Ebert. The film was one of three collaborations with the subversive filmmaker in the 1970s for Ebert. Afterward, he devoted his time exclusively to looking at other people’s films.
For me, Ebert’s legacy is clear.
He helped shape the contextual landscape of media consumption. In an era where a film like G.I. Joe can open in 2,000 theaters while offering few additions to the artistic development of the 13-year-olds in attendance, there is the belief that film can also be life-affirming. They can be challenging, heartfelt, and allow us to walk for two hours in another’s shoes.
Thumbs up Roger on a brilliant career.