Greetings again from the darkness. We never really know how one person can influence our life. In the late 1970’s I stumbled upon a PBS show called “Sneak Previews”. In those days, we only had 3 network channels and PBS (Fox did not exist, and neither did cable), so the cheesy yet catchy opening to the show really caught my eye. And then the magic started. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert began discussing, analyzing, and even arguing about movies. I was mesmerized. These men were making sense of all the garbled thoughts going on in my own mind in regards to movies. Their televised verbal jousting provided the outlet I had unknowingly craved.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were film critics for cross-town rival newspapers, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times. In 1975, they started a show for the local PBS affiliate. It was called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” and was an immediate hit in Chicago. Soon enough the awful title was changed to “Sneak Previews” and other PBS stations across the country began to pick up the show. Tribune Entertainment recognized the potential, and in 1982 syndicated the show nationally as “At the Movies”, and after a contract dispute, they signed with Disney for “Siskel & Ebert and the Movies”. This show ran until Gene Siskel’s death (brain tumor) in 1999. That is the background, but certainly not the story.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert taught me (and others) how to watch movies … how to think about movies … how to discuss and debate movies. Their passion for movies was undeniable and contagious. It was a common link we shared … maybe even a curse. Some people can watch a movie and be entertained – satisfied that it’s an escape from everyday life. Those of us afflicted with the movie curse tend to be absorbed by the cinematic experience. We need to analyze why a specific camera angle was used, why the volume of the musical score was bumped for a scene, what was the motivating factor for the disloyalty shown by lead character’s best friend, and how does this fit in with the history of films that have come before. We the afflicted make no apologies for our obsessions. It’s just who we are. Siske and Ebert not only shared this condition, they guided us through the process of dealing with it. They showed us that what mattered was emotion and passion. There was no right and wrong in how a movie impacted us.
Roger Ebert’s lasting impact on me may be best understood by the fact that I more often sided with Gene Siskel in my movie preferences and opinions. Ebert did not “like” some of my favorites such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Usual Suspects, Full Metal Jacket. Yet, Ebert’s arguments were so well articulated that he mentored me not just in movie opinions, but in general debate. The other guy can disagree with you and not necessarily be wrong! It was a life lesson, not just a lesson in movie criticism. This also explains how Ebert (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1975) was able to take the influence of Pauline Kael, the famous film critic of The New Yorker, and make movie reviews accessible for the mainstream public. Ms. Kael had long been worshipped by the New York pseudo-intellectuals, and certainly she was a brilliant writer, but her approach was never really about the love of movies in the way that Roger Ebert’s was.
Ebert’s life lessons did not end there. After Gene Siskel died, Ebert never missed an opportunity to speak highly of his former TV partner … always praising him for his integrity and love of film. When cancer first struck Ebert in 2002, he took it head on and was outfront in his battle. In 2006, his battle took a turn for the worse, and a portion of his jaw was removed. It was a dramatic physical change to someone we had shared time with for 30 years. Still, he didn’t hide away. He continued to make public appearances, determined not to be a recluse. Ebert fully embraced the power of the internet and became an influencer through Facebook, Twitter and most effectively, his blogging. The man was a prolific writer with more than 7200 published reviews, 38 published books and an unspecified number of blogs and tweets. Again, our opinions often clashed, but we never doubted where he stood on an issue.
Martin Scorcese is producing a documentary called Life Itself. It is based on Ebert’s memoirs of the same title, and Roger had remained very involved in the process. The filmmakers have already stated that the project will be finished and will premiere later this year. It will be a fitting tribute … a movie about the man who was about movies. I hope it gets “two thumbs up”.
I would encourage you to read this interview/profile from Esquire magazine published in 2010. It’s the best I’ve read on Mr. Ebert.