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The Enduring Influence of Roger Ebert

5 Apr, 2013 By: John Latchem

Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert: Two Thumbs Up in Heaven

Anyone who considers themselves a film critic at any level would be lying if they said they weren’t in some way influenced by Roger Ebert, who passed away April 4 at age 70 after a long bout with cancer.

For many people, Ebert defined the art of film criticism and took it to a new level because of all the people he was able to reach. Beginning as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert’s columns were syndicated to hundreds of newspapers and formed the basis for dozens of books. One of my favorites was Ebert’s Movie Glossary, a handy guide to clichés, plot contrivances and other observations that were commonplace in movies. (He would even invite readers to submit their own entries, the best of which were published in subsequent editions).

An Ebert review was part criticism, part essay, and their true value was not just that he was offering an opinion, but the way he could succinctly lay out the reasons for why he came to the conclusions he did. Not that everyone, including myself, wouldn’t disagree with him on at least a semi-regular basis, but at least he would make an argument. He could be serious, he could be funny, but he was rarely uninteresting.

According to RottenTomatoes.com, Ebert agreed with the Tomatometer 77% of the time, a statistic based on 7,202 reviews of his posted on the site.

Ebert’s influence as a critic became so great that he became a pop culture institution unto himself.

In 1970, he collaborated with director Russ Meyer on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an ‘X’-rated spoof not only of the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, but of Hollywood in general. The film became a cult hit, eventually earning a DVD release in 2006 from Fox.

Ebert’s immense popularity as a critic was undoubtedly spurred by the revolutionary idea in 1975 to pair him with another Chicago critic, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to talk about the movies on television. By the 1980s, “Siskel & Ebert” was a weekly institution, and their style of giving films “two thumbs up” or “two thumbs down” had entered the lexicon. I was a regular viewer, curious about which new movies were worth my time, and keenly interested in seeing how my views on a film aligned with theirs.

Personally, I tended to prefer Siskel, who seemed to take a working-class approach to movies in contrast to Ebert’s more erudite nature. That wasn’t just a casual observation. While Siskel would spend his non-critic days covering Chicago Bulls championships for Chicago TV stations, Ebert would host film festivals and lecture students with frame-by-frame examinations of classic movies.

It wouldn’t be unfair to label Ebert a film historian, either, and those not fortunate enough to hear him speak in person could always pick up one of the movies for which he recorded a commentary for the DVD (most of which have carried over to the Blu-ray version of said films).

Naturally, he recorded a commentary for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but his commentaries are also available on Casablanca (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Citizen Kane (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Dark City (DVD and Blu-ray from Warner), Crumb (DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion), and 1959’s Floating Weeds (on DVD from Criterion).

It wasn’t unheard of for a bad Ebert review to earn the wrath of a filmmaker or two. The 1998 Godzilla remake from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich took delight in presenting the buffoonish New York mayor and his assistant as thinly veiled Ebert and Siskel parodies, after the duo had mocked Stargate and Independence Day on their show. (Similarly, famed critic Pauline Kael’s harsh reviews of the “Star Wars” movies inspired George Lucas to name a villain in 1988’s Willow after her.)

Ebert and Siskel (whose name came first on their show because he won a coin flip) weren’t above poking fun at themselves, either, as evidenced by their numerous appearances on late-night talk shows, or the episode of “The Critic” called “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice” (readily available on DVD from Sony Pictures) in which they play themselves in animated form, splitting up only to be drawn back together.

Siskel’s death due to complications from a brain tumor in 1999 was one of the first times I can remember being not just shocked by a celebrity death, but also disappointed for the loss. Ebert tried out a revolving door of replacements until settling on his Sun-Times colleague, Richard Roeper. And while Roeper grew into the role, and is one of the country’s top critics now, “Ebert & Roeper” seemed more a show about a master and an apprentice, rather than the clash of equals that “Siskel & Ebert” had been.

Soon after, Ebert would experience his own cancer diagnosis, spurring a decade-long decline that forced him out of the spotlight. Robbed of his ability to speak, but not to write, he kept on in earnest, turning more toward the Internet and Twitter (something of a twist, I suppose, given how much online ubiquity has dampened the impact of the individual critic). These last few years of Ebert’s career were marked by a variety of bizarre, nonsensical statements and reviews that would leave me scratching my head wondering if we had watched the same film. Whether this had something to do with his cancer I couldn’t say, but I was always a bit saddened that the Roger Ebert “of old” seemed to be gone.

Still, that should not diminish an enduring legacy fueled by a love of going to the movies, and a spirit that lives on in each of us who drew inspiration from his efforts to spread the gospel of film to the world.

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