Roger Ebert was a favorite topic in my family, especially between my brother Kevin, my sister Maria and me. We grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in a movie-obsessed family where a quick rejoinder was held in higher esteem than straight A’s. So, of course, we all watched Siskel & Ebert, back when it was “Sneak Previews” on WTTW and as “At The Movies” and finally, as it always had been anyway, “Siskel & Ebert.” We loved Ebert in print, Siskel on the show.
We naively thought we knew something that Roger wasn’t fully aware of, that he wasn’t really a movie critic but a frustrated essayist. Roger knew all along, and when he lost his ability to speak due to cancer, he no longer held back but wrote on all the topics he once just snuck in amid the film analysis.
I own at least a couple collections of his old reviews, though they are all available now online. Once upon a time, when the internet did not exist, we would pour over that book and call out one great title after another and read aloud to each other what Roger thought.
Too often I enjoyed his review more than the movie. When teaching The Great Gatsby or The Portrait of a Lady, I included his reviews of their (extremely inferior) film-versions, because he was always more interested in discussing the real themes of the novels than the flaws of the films. I gave my students copies of his review of Grass, a documentary he dismisses in one line, but uses to write his own persuasive essay on legalizing marijuana.
I also enjoyed disagreeing with him when he was wrong (e.g. Heartburn, a great movie). To find any reliability in a critic, you have to know their weaknesses or where your tastes overlap and where they part ways. We used to joke that you had to subtract a star from Ebert’s review if a movie contained a lesbian sex scene or a plot involving a boy and his dog. It wasn’t that Ebert was the most reliable critic, just that his reviews were the best written. We usually chose to see the movie first, then read the review. Still, there are favorites I discovered or sought out only because I first learned of them via Ebert’s page: Beyond Silence, Truly Madly Deeply, Tully, Nothing But the Truth ( the last actually discovered via Kevin when he attended Ebertfest).
When I learned Ebert died on April 4th, I emailed Maria and Kevin, and then searched my email just with the phrase Ebert. It makes me sad to know I won’t get another email like so many I found that says, “read this” with a link to his site.
Some of my favorite Ebert truths:
- Audiences are more touched by goodness than by sadness. Tears come not because something terrible has happened, but because something good has happened, which reveals the willingness of people to be brave and kind. (from his review of “Tully”, sent by my sister Maria. How true this is! Kindness, more than tragedy, can move me to tears.)
- No good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short.
- And along those same lines: “In thinking about 'depressing movies,' many people don't realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.”
- The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.
- All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it.
- An honest bookstore would post the following sign above its 'self-help' section: 'For true self-help, please visit our philosophy, literature, history and science sections, find yourself a good book, read it, and think about it.’
In 2004 he wrote poignantly and prophetically in his review of The Sea Inside. While admiring the film, he disagreed with the main character’s perception that life with severe disabilities would not be worth living. Even then he recognized that his innate curiosity would make him want to live. Two years later, as a result of surgery for cancer, he lost his ability to eat, drink or speak. And yet he lived and wrote passionately.
In this last decade, I came to enjoy his reflections on growing up Catholic in the Midwest more than his reviews. My friend Angie sent me his memoir Life Itself a few years ago, and these are the closing lines:
“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
I’m grateful I got to be one of his readers for the past 30+ years. I can’t wait to someday see a documentary that captures the humor and poignancy of his relationship with Siskel. Television no longer has serious conversations about movies. Theaters no longer have balconies. But we still have movies, we still have stories, and we still have joy to contribute.