Ken Harrison 4:30 p.m., Aug. 30
David Elliott remembers Roger Ebert
Former Chicago rival recalls Ebert before Siskbert
Where was I when Roger Ebert died? He'd have been proud. I was all alone in the Clairemont Town Square with pen in hand covering G.I. Joe Retaliation.
Ebert lived to be the most influential film critic the world has ever known, a man who had the power to make or break a film with the simple turn of a thumb.
His death at age 70 doesn't come as so much of a shock, particularly in light of his recent health battles the last several years. What's truly jarring is the realization that his name will no longer adorn one sheets and ad slicks. I can no longer walk past a poster case and mutter, "Ebert liked that?" or "Ebert liked that?"
Roger was a regular guy who would gladly spend time in the lobby talking up movies, were you fortunate enough to run into him before or after a show. You couldn't live in the Chicago area during their heyday without having been aware of the power of Siskbert. Their pictures adorned the sides of paper boxes and delivery trucks. Movie marquees regularly bore their names above the title. In addition to the weekly series, both delivered regular reviews on local news programs.
Was there ever a critic who wrote as many film reviews as Roger Ebert? Many a public figure would have quickly retreated to obscurity if hit with the type of cancer that took Ebert's life. Though the once robust quipster lost his ability to eat, drink and speak due to cancer of the thyroid, he continued to write reviews to the end.
My friend David Elliott knew Roger almost from the beginning. Ebert started at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. Four years later David assumed the position of film critic at the Sun-Times' sister paper, The Chicago Daily News.
"I never knew Roger very personally," Elliott told me. "We were never partners like he and Gene Siskel later, though I was Roger's backup for a while at the Sun-Times. He was a shy guy who had some trouble making direct eye contact, at least near me, yet he was oddly also a compulsive joiner, organizer, debater, emcee, and party spieler."
David pulled together a few thoughts on Ebert to share with Big Screen readers:
--- Ebert popularized the movie fever of Pauline Kael, the voracious analysis of Andrew Sarris and the vernacular, artful slumming of Manny Farber. He did it by writing as a smart fan who could never get enough, and then giving that the pop appeal of his own hard-earned celebrity, which gave him entry to a much bigger audience. And he was such a terrific careerist.
--- I recall going to an Oscars party in a limo with him in 1971, and he kept everyone entertained by doing Bob & Ray routines he had memorized from radio or records. Funny stuff, but I remember wishing he had been more himself.
--- He had a remarkable memory and I was always impressed that he wrote such long, full interviews without using a tape recorder or, I believe, taking notes. They read as good conversations, and some were masterful, like those funny, rambling ones with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum.
--- His taste in movies was very generous, and maybe there were too many four-star reviews, yet he really wanted to share good news. And he had the most necessary form of balance: he judged a movie according to its own form and ambitions, not some damning or exalting Platonic ideal. Movies, like life, rarely submit to perfection.
-- He wasn't high-brow, though he was very well-read. And he wasn't vulgar, though he loved pop culture. In other words, he found his own voice.
--- Ebert's death ends the critical era of which I was lucky to be a part. We were all lucky, coming of age in the film rebirth of the '70s after feasting on the banquets of the '50s and '60s as kids and teens. Movies and theaters and audience expectations have changed too much to ever have that critical vitality again. But, an optimist, Roger kept encouraging young writers.
--- Roger was a great enthusiast, but he wasn't an auteurist nor, though he taught, an academic. That helped him find a big audience, which saw him as their film chum, their pied piper at the movies.
--- He was probably the only film critic to gain fame, a huge fan base and wealth from writing movie reviews, and so his ego sometimes got a little puffy. I remember him declaiming in the Sun-Times city room, to an editor, "The name Ebert on a review is like sterling on silver." That takes brass.
--- I guess my earliest key lesson in real criticism was my enthusiastic college review of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' not long after Roger worked up almost religious enthusiasm for the film in the Sun-Times. I hadn't read his piece, and later when I compared the two reviews I was struck by how much they were alike, and how much they were different. The polarity of that was extremely informative.
--- It's too bad that Ebert got chained to Siskel by a TV rope of gold, because Roger was a better writer, and thinker. Of course, as show-biz it worked, though at considerable cost to the nuances we need. I wish Ebert had found a bright female sparring partner on the show who could have really challenged him, a sort of younger Pauline Kael. But then there was only one Kael.
--- Movie reviews are a very timely, topical form, and they don't seem to have much shelf life. I wonder if all his books of reviews will still be read later. But his memoir and his web pieces on his life and illness and marriage and the late, brave, moving phase of his life deserve to live a long time.
--- He was unique, but isn't that true of every critic who really matters? The web offers so many voices, but has a hard time validating them. Ebert came to it pre-validated. Even without a Pulitzer, he earned it.
--- The man re-made synergy. He became his own theme park: Ebert World. His newspaper reviews, his blog, his books, his festival, his TV show, his radio gigs, his lectures, his red carpet work at the Oscars, his sketches from Cannes, his cult movie ('Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'), his recipes, his online club, and maybe now a bio-documentary produced by Scorsese. It made every other critic feel like a canteen truck parked outside Walmart.
--- If I had to choose one Ebert piece from the thousands, it would be his essay review of 'La Dolce Vita' in one of his books on the greatest movies. It wasn't just about that epic film's impact on him in 1961, but how seeing it again at different phases of his life revealed the real depth of his feeling for it, and his own growth as a person.
More like this:
- Interview with Life Itself director Steve James and Roger Ebert widow Chaz Ebert — July 3, 2014
- Big Screen Christmas Mailbag — Dec. 23, 2013
- In a world without Ebert, Marks is named one of three to watch — Aug. 6, 2013
- RIP Roger Ebert — April 4, 2013
- Movie Review: J. Edgar, Melancholia — Nov. 9, 2011