AICN pays tribute to the great Roger Ebert
Updated with words from Spielberg, President Obama and Guillermo del Toro
Updated with quotes from Steven Spielberg and President Obama. 5:37pm CST
Updated with a quote from Guillermo del Toro 3:28am CST
Hey, guys. Quint here. The news of Roger Ebert’s passing has hit us pretty hard here at AICN. Not only did most of us grow up watching Roger and had our love of film encouraged by him and Gene Siskel on a weekly basis, many of us grew to know him as a colleague and as a person in the 17 years that AICN has been around.
I personally only met the man once. It was at Sundance and I sat in a group with him watching the awful, horrible, agonizing fuck you of a movie TWELVE, directed by Joel Schumacher. Before the film he was engaged in a conversation with my pal Katey Rich of Cinemablend. He had his surgery at that time, so he didn’t have the ability to speak, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from communicating.
The conversation consisted of Ebert asking Katey questions by writing them on a piece of paper and handing it over, then taking part in the conversation that would begin there with more paper notes, head nods and hand gestures.
After the film I made a point to shake his hand and tell him how much his work with Gene Siskel meant to me growing up. He looked down at my badge (which read ERIC VESPE – Ain’t It Cool News), picked it up off my chest, pointed to it and gave me his incredibly famous thumbs up.
Without a single word, only a gladiatorial gesture, he made me smile for a solid 24 hours. I imagine that’s how he made thousands of filmmakers, old and young alike, feel in his long career as a critic.
It should also be noted that Roger was one of the first cheerleaders of online film criticism and became one of the most prominent online voices himself when his battle with cancer took away his physical voice.
We’re going to give tribute to Roger in this story, which will be updated continually until everybody has had their turn to speak. I’ve also reached out to some site friends to see if they’ll throw in any anecdotes about the man and his influence.
Keep updating this story for more thoughts as they come in.
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I'm not sure how I'm going to get through this or if I even can, but let's see how it goes. My friend, colleague, inspiration, and teacher died today. Roger Ebert and his on-screen foil Gene Siskel showed up on my local PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., when I was a preteen on a show called "Sneak Previews," and pretty much from the minute I saw it, I knew what I wanted to do for a living. It seems strange now that a broadcast program inspired me to write, but I understood at the time that both men were newspaper men, and I couldn't think of a better gig.
Watching Siskel and Ebert champion both big Hollywood production and indie gems was only part of the fun. There's no denying that my family got the biggest kick out of watching the pair trample on crap movies, but they tended to get mad at these films because they were lost opportunities. More importantly, when they got behind a film, they did so with all of their heart and soul. When they agreed on the greatness of any film, it was like watching two best friends debating who like ice cream the most. As I got older, I began to notice the language that Ebert used on the show, what elements of a film he focused on when assessing its positive and negative qualities, and how he judged a work's value just as often on how it made him feel in his heart and not just on its intellectual prowess. If a movie made him cry, that often made it great in his eyes.
When I was searching for post-high school education options, I wanted to attend a college or university where I could learn to be a reporter, because I knew that's where Ebert's training started at his beloved University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. But I also knew I wanted to live in Chicago, and thankfully Northwestern University accepted me into its journalism program. The first thing I looked into when I got to my dorm room was how to get Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times delivered to my door.
I have such a vivid memory of seeing Ebert in person for the first time. It was at an event that he and Siskel did annually just before the Oscars, during which they sat on stage and predicted the winners, as well as told us what they thought should win. The first time I ever actually met Roger was in Chicago famed Lake Street Screening Room. It was after Siskel had passed away, and Harry had been on as a guest critic on the TV show at least once; I'd been writing for Ain't It Cool News for about four years, and I was well aware of Ebert's support of both our site and a select few other online outlets. His voice was one of the great legitimizing forces for online writers I can think of; maybe the single greatest. I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but my nerves were tingling. It's one thing meeting someone famous, but it's an entirely different, purely emotional, experience shaking hands with the person who unknowingly set your life down a very specific path.
I've told this story before, right after it happened in 2002. I was lucky enough to attend one of the Ebert & Roeper Film Festival at Sea events, and during one of the Q&As, one question that came up had to do with the internet’s influence on movies and movie marketing. Roger answered that the influence was two-fold: one, that audiences in general know more about a film before its release. Everything from casting news, effects previews, trailers, to fights on the sets are chronicled on various movie-related sites on the internet. Second, a whole crop of "young, talented critics" has arisen, many of whom have a larger reading audience than most print critics. They have a different agenda for liking or disliking a film, and are not shy or polite about expressing their opinions. He continued:
Ebert: In fact, there’s someone here from Ain’t It Cool News who writes under the name Capone. Where are you? [I tentatively raised my hand.] Stand up for a second. [I did as told.]
Richard Roeper: They write under assumed names at that site, but there’s what he looks like!
Ebert: And he’s a good example of one of these up-and-coming critics whom the movie studios dislike, but are becoming more and more a part of the process and the mainstream. His reviews are funny but still manage to make their point as well, if not better than, any "legitimate" film critic.
And in that single moment, I went from wanted to be a film critic to wanted to be one for the rest of my life. You see, Roger didn't see film criticism as a competition; even his rivalry with Gene Siskel was more about working for competing newspaper than any dislike he had for the man. He supported the critics and other writers he loved with as much passion as he did his own work. He would tout them because they were furthering the cause of putting eyes on movies that we all loved, and that should always be the goal.
Over the years, I saw and spoke with Ebert regularly, almost always at screenings, often with his lovely and supportive wife Chaz by his side. I can't even imagine what she's going through right now, but when I see her again, I'm going to hug her tight. I have no doubt that she will find many avenues to see Roger's name and influence continue on for years to come.
A few years ago, Ebert invited me to moderate a Q&A at his Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, and I felt like I had completed the journey I had set out on as a kid. Now, the man I had loved and admired for so long was contacting me to help out with his event. He's asked me back a couple of times since, including the Ebertfest that is/was scheduled to happen in just a couple of weeks. I have no idea whether that event is still happening, but I hope somehow Chaz allows it to go forward this year (the 15th, if I'm not mistaken). Not only was the lineup just great, but I can't imagine a better way to honor, remember, and mourn Roger than doing the thing he loved more than anything else: supporting and turning people on to small, often overlooked films and playing them at his beloved (and just-restored) Virginia Theatre.
I'm sure my colleagues will do a much better job of going through Ebert's list of credentials, DVD commentaries, best reviews, etc. But for me, his passing is part of a more personal journey. I've been so moved seeing the outpouring of love and sadness on Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets about Roger's passing. I can't stop thinking of Chaz, the rest of his family, colleagues, long-time friends, and the millions of fans who have lost a great human being and the loudest-beating heart in film writing. I'm able to smile knowing that Roger is somewhere with so many of his movie heroes and his old sparring partner. As for you guys, go watch a great movie tonight in Roger's honor…
Here’s Nordling with his tribute:
I think we’d all agree that we wouldn’t be doing what we do if not for Roger Ebert. Look, I was movie crazy before I’d even heard of these two guys sitting on the balcony on this show on PBS. I’ve been movie-crazy since I was 5 years old. Do you know the first movie I ever saw? It was THE WILD BUNCH. My mom and dad took me to see it when I was one. And they quickly learned that I never needed a babysitter, because I didn’t make a sound. I, of course, don’t remember that experience but it can definitely be said that movies have been a part of me my entire life.
When I first saw AT THE MOVIES it was revelatory. I wasn’t alone in my cinemania. At last, there were people out there like me, who drank of cinema like the sweetest nectar and basked in all its amazement. You don’t know how important that was to me as a kid. At last, I wasn’t alone – there were OTHERS. Now, of course, anyone with a keyboard an an opinion can talk about movies but in those days, it was really difficult to imagine that I wasn’t alone.
Ebert taught me I wasn’t alone. Through his words and writing, his passion fed my own. I swore that if I wasn’t going to make movies, then by God I’d be writing about them. It’s been a drive that’s stayed with me my entire life, and good or bad I’ve tried to live up to that drive every day. Some days I fail miserably, and then I look at Roger Ebert, who even when losing his voice and his health had a fire for cinema that I wanted so badly to sustain in myself. I remember when DO THE RIGHT THING came out, and all (or most) of America railed about its supposed violence and its inciting of the races. But Roger Ebert knew the score. He knew that it was a masterpiece, and the way he and Siskel championed that film in those turbulent times still shows me that, goddammit, film advocacy MEANS SOMETHING. Film reflects our lives, and Ebert helped show us all that criticism can be a fervent, revolutionary act as much as picking up a gun and storming a bulkhead could be. The power of his words, even when I disagreed with him, always filled me with that zeal.
And I feel like he was just getting started, in a lot of ways. Life was always an adventure to Roger Ebert, and if he had any regrets, they never came across in his writing. People give shit to Harry, or me, for being eternal optimists, but we’re just riffing on Ebert. That’s always the right place to come from when watching a movie, and when Roger negatively reviewed something, I always read disappointment rather than simple snark. Because every movie Ebert sat down to had the potential to be great. I’ve met people, including some reviewers, who come to movies like they have something to prove. Those people are wrong. When I sit down in my church, and those lights come across the screen – those moments are the greatest in my life, because I feel like I’m a part of something bigger and more powerful than myself. Roger Ebert was a guide through this incredible journey and I will miss him for the rest of my life.
Roger Ebert always said “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.” You can say that about life as well. Our own stories aren’t important, but how we go about making them is. Ebert lived his life every day, going about it. I am saddened and even now I’m writing with difficulty because I’m crying, but fuck it. Thank you so much, Roger Ebert. I don’t have any idea what my movie-crazy life would have been like without you.
Ain’t It Cool News
Now here’s Monty Cristo with some thoughts, as well a listing of Ebert’s fantastic commentary tracks. I think I’m going to give a listen to his Kane commentary tonight in honor of the man.
One of my bits of work for the day was to compose something a bit more substantive about just how much Roger Ebert's work has meant to me for so much of my life. I didn't think that I would find myself composing it under these circumstances. You always want to think that there is more time.
The candor of his last column sounded hopeful, but there was an undercurrent of a General putting on his boots to charge toward the final battle with the vigor he had left.
I had always wanted to meet Roger, whether by attending his Overlooked Film Festival, or somewhere else. I don't feel that I missed out, or that I regret not making a concerted effort to see him though. I knew him from his appearing on my TV in the same way I knew other childhood heroes, from Mr. Rogers to Jim Henson. I knew his spirit and passion from the ink he spilled on the page, whether paper or digital. What Ebert managed to sculpt in a combination of the written word and televised discussion completely transformed the notion of the acceptable forms that film criticism could take.
Roger is the reason I started seeking out and following critics, starting with his partner Gene Siskel and continuing to other greats like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. I discovered and read more critics when internet access (and publishing) took off in the late 90's. I became a devoted fan of Elvis Mitchell's critiques and his radio show. I could seek out the critics who would guest appear on Siskel & Ebert with a few clicks and keystrokes. I discovered sites like Ain't It Cool News that truly democratized the medium and radically expanded the range of voices writing about cinema.
In college, I got a freelance post writing movie reviews for a campus alternative paper. DVD commentary tracks became the new rage among film nerds, and I devoured them. Roger recorded a handful, and they're all golden:
Casablanca ("Does this make sense? No, but who cares? It's Casablanca!")
Criterion's Floating Weeds
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (unfortunately OOP, the one in-print lacks his track)
His track on the 2004 disc for Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds represents the primary reason I've become such a dedicated student of the director's work. Ozu's movies have affected my outlook on life in a profound and permanent way. I've gone through personal tragedies and successes that have a sort of sense memory attachment to Ozu movies. I know that more parts of my life to come will further deepen my relationship with Ozu's work. I would have none of that in my life without the work and passion of Roger Ebert. I wouldn't have the kind of appreciation for Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell, Buster Keaton, and countless other cinematic artists if not for Roger.
In 2005, I started writing a column at Hollywood Elsewhere (since moved to my own site). I never had delusions of maintaining an audience the size of Ebert's, but that wasn't the point. If my work could influence discovery in 5, 50, or 5000 people, it didn't matter as long as I was doing something to drive the meaningful appreciation of and love for cinema. I obsess over proper aspect ratios, the simulation of grain in Blu-ray transfers, and the proper preservation of our cinematic history. That all started for me with Ebert.
When I sat down to write this, I felt what I'm seeing countless other critics/columnists/writers say they feel on Twitter: I don't know that I can write enough. I'm sure that I could write 10,000 words about Roger if I set down to it, but I wouldn't be finished even if I ended up with a biography the size and scope of Walter Isaacson's one on Steve Jobs. To quote Whitman, Ebert's influence is infinite, it contains multitudes.
The only fitting way I feel I can pay tribute to a man whose work has meant so much to myself and so many others is to continue my work and charge through the end doing work of which he would be proud. Roger Ebert's quest to elevate the art of cinema through the art of criticism deserves no less effort from any of us.
Here’s Billy the Kidd with some thoughts:
How does one even begin to describe the impact and influence one of the greats of your chosen profession has had on you? You’ve never had the pleasure of meeting them, but you feel as if you know a great deal about them simply from their love and passion for film. That was Roger Ebert, a man who popularized film criticism and made it something that everyone could do, because they already were doing it. Most famously paired with Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert discussed movies with his fellow critic, analyzing a movie for what it did right, what it did wrong, what worked, what didn’t... but most importantly, they were able to relay how a particular film affected them. That’s what we’ve always done with our friends after having seen a film. We gather around, arguing or debating or commiserating with our thoughts and feelings and opinions of a film, backed up with evidence to support our positions. Roger Ebert took that very formula and showed that there was value to what film lovers had to say, becoming the face of film criticism on a level we could all understand. There was never a level of snootiness or pretentiousness to Roger Ebert’s writing. He knew what he liked. He knew what he didn’t, and he spoke and/or wrote about it in a way that you could either agree or disagree with. He never talked down to his viewers or readers with some high-brow approach to film like some of his peers. Instead he discussed film in a way that engaged you, and encouraged you to form your own opinions, take your own stands, make your own decisions about the movies you watched.
I remember watching AT THE MOVIES back in the day quite regularly, always curious to see what Gene and Roger thought of a film. Would they reach some type of consensus for once on the positive or the negative, or would they find themselves at two opposite ends of the critical spectrum again as would become their norm quite often? Watching them go back and forth on a film they held different positions not only made for good entertainment, but it also showcased the idea that there is no right or wrong way in which to view a film. It was okay for two different people to see a film through two completely different lenses. And that’s something I’ve always carried with me as I have moved further into the world of film criticism myself. There is no one way to feel about a film. Take any film in the history of cinema, and you will always find people with differing points of film about it. However, as long as we are respectful in our dialogue as to why the film plays differently for the parties discussing it, how can you not find something amazing in being able to be passionate about movies with other film lovers who have their own points of view to bring to the table? That’s what any movie geek celebrates - sitting around with your buddies talking about the films you love, the films you hate, the ones that connected with you, the ones that didn’t... and Roger Ebert made it cool to do such a thing.
When AT THE MOVIES went into syndication, it was always difficult to find it regularly. Often a different time slot, sometimes a different channel, but, when I did find it, it was a must-watch right then and there. As it became harder to locate it though, I took more to Roger’s writing, always curious what he thought of a film. Roger was the first film critic I ever made it a point to read on a weekly basis, wanting to know his thoughts on movie, because it mattered to me. Sometimes it would guide the choices I made in what to see and what not to see, but, as I grew older, wanting to see just about everything I could get a ticket for, my dynamic with Roger’s reviews changed a bit. I wasn’t interested in letting Ebert’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down dictate my viewing habits. I was more interested in having a dialogue with his perspective. How were my feelings on a film different than his? How were they the same? Did I think he was way off? Did I think he was incredibly accurate? I didn’t look to Roger Ebert to validate my opinion of a film. I looked to him to further enhance my thoughts, challenging me to not only consider what I had seen in a movie but what others had seen as well.
As Roger has worked less and less over the years, my reading of his reviews sort of fell off... but every so often I still found myself wondering what Roger would think of a film, just so I could compare my thoughts to his. Who knows? Maybe had I never seen Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel duking it out regularly, I still would have wound up doing what I do. One will never know. But there’s no question that because of Rogert Ebert, his love of film and his commitment to an honest and respectful dialogue about it, I find myself where I am, writing about what I love... and he will always get my thumbs-up as a result.
And here’s Beaks.
SNEAK PREVIEWS introduced me to film criticism at a very early age. I wasn't yet ten when I discovered it on our local PBS station, and I probably started watching it because it delivered precisely what the title promised: previews of upcoming movies. Growing up in a small Ohio town (just before the dawn of the VCR revolution), this was gold. And being not yet old enough to watch most horror films and hit comedies like CADDYSHACK, these clips were the closest I could legitimately get to watching the movies my older brother and his friends were constantly talking about.
But it didn't take long for me to start picking up on the discussions occurring between the previews, and, soon enough, they became as much a highlight as the clips. I loved the contentiousness, I loved "Spot the Wonder Dog" introducing the "Dog of the Week", and, most of all, I loved it when these two gentlemen my father's age would come to the defense of the genre movies I loved. Without their impassioned seal of approval (on a special "Buried Treasures" episode), I don't think I would've ever gotten my dad to drive up to Toledo, Ohio so I could see Wes Craven's SWAMP THING. (And he liked it, too!)
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were, get this, adults who made a living arguing about movies on television! As a kid who drove his family and friends nuts by talking about movies at every opportunity (to the point where my nephew Billy started calling me "Siskel"), they were my salvation. More than that, they exposed me to a world of cinema outside of my limited interests, while reminding me that the goofy genre movies I loved could have genuine artistic merit. They weren't snobs. They celebrated the whole range of cinematic expression.
As I got older, I began to seek out their writing, and soon found myself relating to Ebert's way of reviewing a movie - and, man, was he relatable. When Ebert loved a film (and he was quick to love, which speaks to what a quality human being he was), it was an exhilarating explosion of emotional and intellectual ardor. Before he began revisiting films as part of his essential "The Great Movies" column, I'd read and re-read his appreciations of THE GODFATHER, STAR WARS (he was onboard from day one) and E.T. Of course, it was always an event when he wrote about Martin Scorsese, who was a fellow guilt-ridden Roman Catholic. But I especially loved it when he sparked to an unappreciated artist's work. He was an early admirer of Jennifer Jason Leigh, praising her work in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH while most rushed to condemn the film wholesale (Ebert didn't like it either, but he responded to the performances). Ebert was also a vociferous defender of Spike Lee's from the beginning, going on to write several definitive pieces on DO THE RIGHT THING. That's what was so great about Ebert: when a film got to him, he couldn't stop writing about it. And when a similarly-themed film let him down, he'd sometimes use the column space to champion the better movie.
Ebert's work ethic is the stuff of legend, and, even as he battled cancer over the last decade, it never flagged. He took to the internet early, and it turned out to be the ideal medium for him - especially once blogging became all the rage. Ebert wrote... and wrote... and wrote... and it never seemed self-indulgent. And he used the accessibility of the internet to reach out to other critics. Given his unofficial stature as the Dean of American Film Criticism, a kind word in an email from Ebert could mean the world to a struggling young writer. I remember lashing out at CRASH the day after the 2006 Oscars, and receiving an note of admiration later in the day from Roger - which was quite unexpected given his love for the movie I was trashing. I was writing for the then barely-read Collider, and he must've stumbled across my piece (he was as avid a reader as he was a writer) and found it amusing. We struck up a casual correspondence for a few months after that, which meant the world to me. When Roger selected Terry Zwigoff's Director's Cut of BAD SANTA for Ebertfest in 2006, I sent him my AICN review of the test screening version (which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been reconstructed as I remember it). He immediately sent it to Zwigoff, who said that was as close to his true version as anyone ever saw, and then, a few days later, re-printed my review in the Ebertfest program. I'm not graceful enough for backflips, but there was a good deal of spirited hopping in my apartment that day.
I forwarded that email exchange to my mom that day, and while I've been fortunate enough to experience other professional triumphs in my life, it's still the "Made it, Ma" moment (not in the WHITE HEAT way, but in general). Roger had been encouraging me my whole life from a distance; now he was doing it personally. I already owed him everything, but this was the first time my lifelong passion felt worthwhile. I'll never stop writing about movies, and I'll never stop thanking Roger for teaching me that it's a wonderful obsession.
Even President Obama was influenced by Roger. Here's the official White House quote:
"Michelle and I are saddened to hear about the passing of Roger Ebert.
For a generation of Americans -- and especially Chicagoans -- Roger was the movies.
When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive -- capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.
Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient -- continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world.
The movies won't be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family."
Steven Spielberg responded to a request for a comment on Mr. Ebert's passing and below are his words:
"Roger loved movies. They were his life. His reviews went far deeper than simply thumbs up or thumbs down. He wrote with passion through a real knowledge of film and film history, and in doing so, helped many movies find their audiences. Along with Gene Shalit, Joel Siegel, and of course Gene Siskel, Roger put television criticism on the map. Roger's passing is virtually the end of an era and now the balcony is closed forever."
---Steven Spielberg, April 4, 2013
Guillermo del Toro just sent in this lovely remembrance:
I have always admired Roger's reviews. I agreed with them most of the time but I also found myself admiring the way he argued and presented his point of view on films that didn't click with me. Erudition with passion was his trademark and he loved cinema and life in equal measure. Through the years I grew to admire him not only as a critic but as an American thinker and a good and decent man. He had a fierce but kind heart and possessed a intelligence that was both noble and vast. I met him and Chaz once in the Cannes film festival and we spent a delightful evening chatting about two of our favorite pulp magazines: Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. I cannot help but feel affected in a way that is more intimate than our passing contact would warrant but that is because I met his soul a long time ago and forged a friendship with it. His legacy lives in my heart and in the heart of every film lover in the world.
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