There have been so many beautiful tributes to film critic Roger Ebert, who died a few days ago, that I was almost hesitant to add my own thoughts. What more needs to be said? Many famous people, such as President Obama, Werner Herzog, Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Maltin and Richard Roeper, as well as many not-so-famous people, have written and spoken very eloquently about Ebert’s life and cultural impact.
But as someone who became a serious student of film just as Ebert became a household name, I feel the need to add what he meant to me.
When I say I “became a serious student of film” I could swap that out for “became a serious film snob.” Not only because I was pursuing a degree in film studies, but also because my mother was working for New Yorker Films, a company that distributed foreign and independent films. This was during the late 70s and early 80s, just as there was an explosion in the art house scene. Growing up, I loved Hollywood classics (my grandparents thought I was mad for loving film noir, what they considered “B” movies) and now exposed to foreign films, both in school and through my mother’s connection to New Yorker Films, I thought those were the only kinds of movies worth liking.
Before college, I had loved popular fare like Star Wars, but there did come a point when I started to turn my nose up at those kinds of movies. I remember taking my father to see Raiders of The Lost Ark for his birthday and kind of smirking my way through it, while my parents were completely enthralled by it. (I love the movie now, by the way.) Someone who worked at New Yorker Films asked me if I’d seen The Terminator yet and I looked at him as if he had committed a sacrilege.
Yeah, I was kind of obnoxious on the subject for a while.
Happily, I got over it in a big way, and Roger Ebert is one of the reasons why. Watching him and Gene Siskel on At The Movies and the other incarnations of their review show, it eventually dawned on me that I was missing out on some great movies. What I came to love about them, and about Roger particularly, was that they simply loved movies, and it didn’t matter if they were Hollywood blockbusters or foreign films or small independent features. If they were good, they were good.
It’s a little hard to imagine now, because professional film critics seem to have little impact on the success or failure of movies, but Siskel and Ebert could help films succeed that might have been overlooked otherwise.
I worked for a while at New Yorker Films myself, answering the phones, during the time that a movie called My Dinner With Andre was having a hugely successful one year run at one of their theaters. The major reason the movie—which is about two men (Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn) talking over dinner—did such phenomenal business was Siskel and Ebert boosting it on their show. One of the amazing things I noticed while reading over the tributes to Ebert was how many of them mentioned that Siskel and Ebert persuaded them to go see My Dinner With Andre and/or had people in the comments section saying the same thing.
It’s true that they had most sway when it came to movies that were in the art house category, but the fact that they boosted art films while taking mainstream Hollywood fare completely seriously was probably why their show was successful while others who tried to copy its format were not.
When Gene Siskel died in 1999, it was impossible to replicate the chemistry the two men had, though Richard Roeper did a good job as Ebert’s new partner. When cancer literally took away Ebert’s voice in 2006 and ended his television career, it would have been perfectly understandable if he had faded away from the public consciousness.
But he didn’t go away. With the advent of social media, Ebert was able to stay connected to his audience and continue reviewing and boosting movies. Almost up to the last day of his life, he was still writing about his favorite subject. He even had plans to crowdfund a new version of At The Movies.
Roger Ebert taught me to love movies for themselves, not for what category of movie they belonged to. For that, I will always be grateful.
R.I.P., Roger. I hope you and Gene are together, having a great time watching (and probably arguing about) movies.