I have been a fan of film criticism ever since I checked out Rex Reed’s book, Big Screen, Little Screen, from the local Library years ago. It was entertainingly irreverent and sarcastic, but the idea that someone could make a living watching movies and TV shows then writing about it had never crossed my mind. English Teachers, Literature Teachers, and even one Psychology Teacher, often told me I had a knack for story telling. I just needed to be more polished.
In my junior year, I was told by a guidance counselor that the creative writing class wasn’t for someone like me, and my dreams of putting pen to paper and coming up with any kind of worthy prose that someone would actually want to read were squashed. And no, this particular misguided counselor had no way of knowing whether I had any real talent buried inside of my over active imagination that could be harnessed and projected out through my magic typing fingers.
In case you’re wondering what she meant by “someone like me,” see any John Hughes movie that takes place in, near, or during high school for reference. Yes, teachers can sometimes be as shitty as the students.
Fast forward to the mid seventies. Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel, rival critics from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune respectively begin appearing in a monthly show on the local Chicago PBS station, WTTW. The program becomes popular enough that it moves to a bi-weekly format, and is aired on PBS Stations around the country. By 1979, it was appearing weekly on stations all over the United States and quickly became the highest rated entertainment show in the history of PBS.
I was lucky enough to discover the show early on, when it always ended with Spot the Wonder Dog making an appearance for the Dog of the Week segment. I became an instant fan of both critics. And the dog as well. But I always preferred Ebert. He seemed more like the average guy you would go see a film with, and then argue it’s merits or lack of over a brew at the local tavern. For some reason, when I enjoyed a film that the two critics loved, I felt as if my opinion was validated. But if there was a film I liked that they panned, I didn’t feel as if my reasoning was any less valuable than theirs. But I did watch, listen, and learn as to why Gene and especially Roger, offered the criticisms that they did. And what I learned was that there was many more different layers in the process of movie making then I had realized.
It was no longer whether I just liked the movie or not. It was now, what did I like about it? The acting? The Cinematography? The Costume Design? The Craftsmanship of a Director choreographing the film so that all of these elements combined in perfect harmony? On the opposite end of the equation, were the actors giving it their best effort to overcome the crappy dialogue of a miserable screen play? What decisions did the director make that were just bad choices all the way around? Is the score pleasing to the ear and does it enhance the film? Or did you just want to mute the damn thing? Or is everybody going through the motions just to make a quick buck.
Yet, I never had a chance to actually read an Ebert or Siskel written review until the late nineties, when the internet finally began to unfurl itself to the masses. We didn’t get the Chicago Newspapers delivered to the town that I lived in. It was Ebert whose reviews I read for the most part probably because he took to the internet like a duck takes to water.
And what you saw on TV was pretty much what you read in print, with the caveat that the written reviews were more in depth, but could often be just as sarcastic, funny, witty, or totally serious in their absolute praise. It became a weekly ritual to find Ebert’s reviews on Friday before heading to the theater. A bad review didn’t necessarily keep me away from many films, but a good review could often convince me to view a film I might not have bothered with.
When Siskel passed away, Richard Roeper took over for him. I like Roeper, but I had spent so many years with Roger and Gene, that it just wasn’t the same. And when Ebert became ill and had to leave the program, my interest in it waned. But I still went to Roger’s web page, hoping he would be back writing about the latest film offerings.
Eventually he did return. And in the process having lost his voice, Roger adapted new ways to communicate with his millions of fans through his blog, through his constant twitter presence, and through his many books. And whether it was a result of having to deal with his many illnesses or not, he seemed to become closer and more accessible to his millions of fans on the internet and off.
But when it came to what was on the screen, Ebert believed in the purity of cinema. He often wrote about some of the new film technologies he didn’t particularly care for. I don’t think he ever came to terms with the 3D process. He viewed it as gimmicky, and there were less than a handful of films that he thought made proper use of the technique. These included Avatar, and the recent Life of Pi.
Ebert hated the conversion of celluloid to digital projection in the theaters. But I think he finally grew to accept that it was the future and there was no stopping it. Or maybe he was simply lamenting the fact that the day would come when the world of cinema he knew so well and had loved his entire life would no longer exist at all in the manner he and so many of us had become accustomed to.
It was in 2003 that my old urge to write resurfaced after lying dormant for over thirty years. I had read many “reviews” on the IMDB, and decided I could do that as well. My initial offerings weren’t more than a couple of paragraphs, three at the most. (And I’m sure there are those who wish they still were) When I mention those early reviews, I often refer to them as a P.O.S. That’s because for the most part they are. But at the urging of a few people I had met on the Titanic message boards, I began to expand my horizons. I did my best to improve. As you can tell, it’s constantly a work in progress.
Not long after that, politics got in the way. I was on the old AOL, and 2004 being an election year, I decided I could no longer stand the George W. Bush admiration society campaign of misinformation any longer. So movie reviews gave way to politics, and in November of that year, I was designated as the Democratic Blog Page of the Month out of thousands. There was, a Republican Counterpart. In the end, it may have been an award that had little meaning for anyone but myself. But I can’t tell you the joy and surprise I felt for just having been acknowledged for the first time.
Eventually I would get back to the movies. And I enjoyed doing it so much I started a separate movie review blog. Clyde’s Stuff was generally used for other entertainment features and politics. A strange mix if there ever was one. And except for my writings concerning American Idol in 2005 and 2006 which set my blog aflame, my reviews of movies old and new attracted the most traffic.
I think what I also learned from Roger Ebert was to not only be myself, but to do my utmost to be entertaining while being as informative as I could. Say what you think, but don’t act like some know it all talking down to others. You have to love what you are doing when it comes to writing. Chances are you won’t make a dime. You do it for the enjoyment of it, and if someone happens by and likes what you’ve done or responds to it, then that’s just icing on the cake.
Roger loved the movies, and loved to write. I do as well. I followed him for over thirty years, and in his last blog entry, I had a very uneasy feeling about how things were really going. During the entire period of his illness, Ebert always tried to put the best face on what at times must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles while experiencing excruciating pain. And last Thursday, when I came home from work and logged onto The Huffington Post, the news couldn’t have been more any worse. Ebert, had passed away. I felt like I had lost a best friend. I was devastated. I don’t think there has been the death of any celebrity that had affected me as much as this one did.
There weren’t too many days that I spent on the internet that I didn’t check to see if Roger had a new column, or some new reviews. Or if he tweeted something he found particularly compelling on the chance that you might be interested in it as well. Chances were pretty good that you would be. I always was. There was something comforting for me about just knowing Roger was there and that anything he had to say would be infinitely more worthwhile than the thousands of words I’ve typed out in this entire blog.
I had commented on his blog several times. The last time was in one of his most widely responded to essays asking his audience what was the movie that they really hated, hated, hated. I offered up Norbit, a movie I examined in depth on this blog, and went so far as to use a brief passage from that article in my response. But other than that, I made no real attempt to ever contact him in person. Now I wish I had. Now it is too late.
I’m not sure what I would have written. Maybe just writing and letting him know how much admiration I had for him not only as a writer, but his importance to me as a person because he believed in the philosophy that it was more important to do your best to make others happy. From a political standpoint and a humanitarian standpoint, we were on the exact same page. And he never tried to hide it, often writing lengthy essays such as this recent passage on climate change and this one written in January on gun legislation where he had a sense of hope, and then this later one, where his outlook had turned bleak. I understand this as well. Having written about politics off and on for the past nine years, I’m not sure that too much has really changed for the better in this country. And most days, I swear I’ll never write another word. But the hypocrisy in the never ending selfish philosophy of much of the world boils inside you until you have to let it out regardless of how frustrating it may be in the end. Just as I sense Roger’s frustration when writing about a young girl who died needlessly in Harsh Park.
There are some people who hated Roger Ebert. They hated him because he dared to give a thumbs down to some inconsequential piece of film tripe that they may have revered. To them, it didn’t matter why. But this is the same type of narrow minded earthlings who hated Roger politically, because he was often derisive of their inability to grasp the simple equation that their fellow man’s well being should be given the highest priority, and not lining the pockets of Corporate USA. It is their loss, for they’ll never really understand nor did they experience all that he had to give.
Monday, April 8th, will be Roger’s Memorial service. It is open to the public on a first come basis. And that’s a good thing. Because for Ebert, other than the movies themself and the love of his life, Chaz, it was his millions of followers that meant more to him than anything. But he wouldn’t want tears. He had lived life to the fullest, and relished every minute of it. He had given all he had to give. He would want us to continue to do so as well.
He loved his fans every bit as much as we loved him. As far as I’m concerned, the balcony will never close. Goodbye, Roger. We’ll miss you.