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Friday, April 5, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

The Legendary Pulitzer Prize-Winning Film Critic Dies at 70 (1942-2013)

By Chris Sabga

"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies." – Roger Ebert's final written words, posted on April 2, 2013, just two days before his death

I was only a little boy when I found Roger Ebert. Like most of you reading this, I discovered him through "Siskel & Ebert." They praised the movies they liked by raising "Two Thumbs Up" and dismissed the ones they didn't with "Two Thumbs Down." Even better was when they disagreed and their thumbs went in opposing directions.

I was instantly fascinated.

They were so intelligent and entertaining about my favorite topic in the whole world. They took it seriously. The show seemed like manna from Heaven to me and I watched it religiously.

In addition to their lively debates, "Siskel & Ebert" also featured short clips of the movies they were reviewing. That was a big deal in the '80s. Remember, there was no internet or YouTube back then.

One of my favorite moments on the show was when Roger started yelling at Gene for always insulting his weight (I believe the movie they were reviewing was "Heavyweights"). I was instantly taken aback because it was so raw and real – unlike most of what was shown on television then and now. There were many such moments throughout the history of the program.

Somewhere into the early-'90s, my mother came back from a thrift shop with a gift for me: the 1989 edition of "Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion." The book was several years old by then, but that didn't matter. I was completely blown away. At the time, I had no idea that he even wrote reviews, or so many and so well. As much as I loved Ebert as a TV personality, his writing was on another level entirely.

My favorite Roger Ebert quote is: "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." That philosophy enabled me to enjoy films about gay cowboys ("Brokeback Mountain"), male ballet dancers ("Billy Elliot"), and various other subjects that I would've otherwise had little interest in. A good movie is a good movie; it doesn't matter what it's about, just how it's about it.

"Siskel & Ebert," and later Ebert's writing, showed me that there was more to the movies than just the flashy blockbusters everyone already knew about. They encouraged moviegoers to seek out those under-the-radar hidden gems just beneath the surface – yes, the silver screen surprises. In that way, this site owes an enormous debt to both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

The first example of many, for me, was hearing about "Before Sunrise" on "Siskel & Ebert" and later reading about it one of Roger's books. The premise is simple but tantalizing: two young people meet on a train and spend the evening together in Vienna. It was years before I could get my hands on it. When I finally did, on DVD, I wasn't disappointed. There was – and remains – nothing else quite like it (except for the wonderful sequels).

In addition to spotlighting movies, Ebert also championed his own critical influences – such as the sharp, biting wit of Pauline Kael, whose work and legacy live on as a result.

Of course, Ebert wasn't always right. In one controversial instance, he famous decried that video games could never be art. The truth is, just like the movies, most of them aren't but a few of them are.

I didn't agree with his reviews 100% of the time either – of course not – but you always knew where he stood. He had a soft spot for sci-fi (for example, he liked "Minority Report" somewhat more than I did) and movies about African-American issues (except for Tyler Perry). He was very open when it came to his own views on religion, race, and politics; they influenced his feelings about a film, and he admitted it. He never pretentiously pretended to be speaking on behalf of some "universal" voice; he brought only his likes and dislikes to everything he covered, and that's the way it should be. 

He could brilliantly dissect a movie. One of my favorite reviews of his was of the 2003 John Travolta film "Basic." I walked out of the theater on cloud nine. I loved it. Roger Ebert had the opposite reaction. In his review, he very precisely laid out what he felt didn't work about the movie. Even though we were diametrically opposed in our opinions, I understood exactly where he was coming from. It was great, logical writing.

Ebert was also way ahead of the curve about the 2009 Nicolas Cage movie "Knowing." It has a 33% "Rotten" score on – and a four-star review by Roger Ebert. He was right. It's not a perfect film, but it is pretty damn fantastic. I think history will validate his opinion.

He also had great taste in food. He loved Steak 'n Shake. "If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice were up to me," he wrote, "it would be Steak 'n Shake – and they would be delighted."

His passion was such that he even wrote a cookbook – "The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker" – long after cancer had eroded his jaw and he was no longer able to speak or eat normal food.

Indeed, he wrote about much more than just movies in his final few years. His two pieces on loneliness – "All the lonely people" and "A meeting of solitudes" – are absolutely spellbinding.

I could throw around words like "tragic" to describe the medical issues Roger Ebert endured, but I'm not sure he would have approved of anyone's sympathy. He always wrote about his illness in such a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Whether or not he would have agreed, his attitude and approach were admirable.

His health had been waning for over a decade, but his death still came as a sudden shock to most of his readers. Only two days before he died, he wrote about his plans for the future. He was going to take "a leave of presence" but that didn't mean he was going away. He still planned to write select reviews, and he was even working on launching a new website, Ebert Digital.

The last two reviews Roger Ebert posted while he was still alive were "The Host" and "From Up on Poppy Hill," both on March 27th. They each received two-and-a-half stars, which would ordinarily be a "Thumbs Down." His actual final review – yet to be published – was for Terence Malick's "To the Wonder." According to editor Jim Emerson, it was given three-and-a-half stars – thankfully a "Thumbs Up."

The world of film has lost its greatest advocate, and I've lost a major part of my childhood and life.

The balcony is closed.

R.I.P., Mr. Ebert.

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