No one was surprised by the death of Roger Ebert last week and many were amazed he’d made it this long: the film critic, writer and social commentator had long suffered from an insidious, unshakeable cancer. But that doesn’t mean his death wasn’t a shock, a cold blow to the soul, a huge loss of a one-of-a-kind character.
At the Movies
Like almost all latent film nerds, I watched Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews on Sundays on PBS and no matter what the show evolved into, it was always Siskel and Ebert to me. Siskel, “the bald one,” critiqued movies more from the head while Ebert, “the fat one,” talked from his heart. The two frenemies were always fun to watch, agreeing, disagreeing, snarking, but always, always passionate about movies.
They were also among the first film critics I ever saw who talked about the subtext of film and how images and ideas mattered to the larger culture. Their reviews included critiques of how women and minorities were treated in the movies and the effects of perspective when dealing with violence. They talked about movies as though they mattered and not just for simple entertainment. They required that filmmakers take some responsibility for their work and think about how it contributed to the overall culture. (Not that Roger was as stuffy as that sounds, as one of his screenwriting effort attests: “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” didn’t exactly sweep the awards shows for quality writing.)
Siskel died way too young, cutting short one of the best pop-culture, odd-couple cult duos ever. But Roger kept on, writing his movie reviews and books, partnering with a series of critics for more reviews on TV, making a career out of his passion.
Cinema Interruptus Interrupted
I first saw him in person in 1992 at his annual Cinema Interruptus, part of the Boulder World Affair’s Conference and a must-see for CU film students. The Interruptus was a five-day orgy of film analysis and appreciation. Ebert screened a movie the first day and then for the subsequent four days, he would stop the film to make comments and observations. He was always a man of the people and anyone in the audience could yell “Stop!” and overanalyze the film along with him.
Though I was never an official film student, I made the trek to Boulder every day that week for Roger, and for movies. That year, he deconstructed Silence of the Lambs, lovingly explaining the basics of film composition to us noobs and patiently waiting through mouthy film students’ comments in his polite yet acerbic way. Most of what I know about film and quite a bit of what I know about cinematic storytelling came out of those 10 magical hours in the dark.
You can get a taste of the fun listening to his DVD commentary for Citizen Kane. Ever wonder why that movie is so lauded when the storytelling usually leaves most people a little cold? Roger helps put it in historical context and demonstrates the technical genius of Orson Welles’ innovations. His commentary is more informative and inspiring than the talented director Peter Bogdanovich, who does one in the same edition. Sorry Peter, Roger was just more engaging, informative and fun. He always treated pop-culture like it mattered. Movies were not mere entertainment but they had a pulse and a heartbeat and were the stuff La Dolce Vita was made out of-the sweet life. La Dolce Vita, the Fellini film, the subject of 4 of his Cinema Interruptuses. How I wish I had made it to one of them.
It was a truly sad day in 2011 when he announced he could no longer continue, but the tradition continues on, this year with writer/producer Terence McNally dissecting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
He came to Tattered Cover when I worked there as a bookseller to sign his latest book about movies. As you might expect, he was pretty much the Roger we all knew from a distance-funny, incisive, opinionated, frank–and brimming over with love for movies, for pop culture, for the human condition. His signings were always packed and he put on a good show. It was like he carved himself out a niche all his own, movie critic/pop culture icon/social commentator/entertainer/rock star. I can’t think of another critic who drew such an enthusiastic crowd.
At that signing, he recommended Mulholland Drive, saying it wasn’t like a typical David Lynch film. Though I’m not a fan of some of David Lynch’s more out-there films, I saw Mulholland Drive on Roger’s recommendation. I wished I knew him well enough to approach him and demand my $10 back because, sorry Roger, Mulholland Drive is exactly like a David Lynch movie. (Straight Story, now that’s not a typical David Lynch movie, yet it’s terrific.)
I imagine a lot of us talk to Roger in our heads, agreeing, arguing, wanting to engage. He was that kind of fellow, accessible, friendly but not cloying, one of us. His books especially are like long, late nights with your favorite slightly-cranky uncle, arguing over movies, always, movies.
La Dolce Vita
The last time I saw Roger was in 2009 when he did his film interruptus with Jim Emerson for the movie Chop Shop. I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie and wouldn’t have bothered but I wanted to see Roger because, with all of his health scares, you never knew. Roger, shockingly thin, cancerous jaw removed and wearing a black harness around his chin, typed into the computer and Emerson read his words aloud. Yep–wry, funny, incisive, generous, snarky–even translated from technology through another person, it was unmistakably Roger’s voice.
For many of us, for me, the voice of the movies.