Roger Ebert, R.I.P.

I’m writing too many remembrances these days. I suppose it’s a natural part of growing older — the people who were part of your life start to go away. It’s one thing when it’s someone you know, like Rick Hautala.  It’s another, stranger but no less affecting thing when it’s someone you didn’t know personally but who was such a big part of your formative years that you almost feel like he’s part of your family. And that, to me, was Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday at the age of 70.

There are no words to express what Siskel and Ebert At the Movies meant to me. I watched it regularly since it began airing in syndication in New York City in the mid-1980s. I watched it well into my adulthood. Hell, I would tape the damn thing with my VCR if I wasn’t home to watch it. Together, I let them into my home every weekend and listened to what they had to say about the movies coming out that week. I liked them. I respected their opinions. And even when I disagreed with their criticisms of movies I loved, I knew those criticisms were often valid ones.

When Gene Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998, Ebert tried to keep the show going. Siskel would call in from his home or hospital bed to share his thoughts on that week’s films — one time, famously, while flying so high on pain killers that Ebert could only laugh and shake his head at the non-sequitors coming out of his absent friend’s mouth. When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert refused to let the show die, too. He auditioned, on air, a rotating cast of fellow film critics to take Siskel’s place — including, weirdly, Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, who proved he’s much better behind the keyboard than in front of the camera. Finally, Ebert chose Richard Roeper, a fellow Chicago film critic, and the show became Ebert and Roeper and the Movies. Roger Ebert, after nearly twenty years, finally got his name first on the marquee.

I never warmed to Roeper the way I did to Siskel. When Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands, and chin, and couldn’t talk anymore, Roeper soldiered on with his own rotating cast of co-hosts — including, weirdly, John Mellencamp, who refused to say a bad word about any film they reviewed that week. He was just happy the filmmakers and actors were trying so darn hard to entertain everyone. Roeper looked exasperated. Mellencamp never returned. Neither did Ebert. I eventually stopped watching. It just wasn’t the same.

One of the amazing things I’ve discovered about Roger Ebert from his various obituaries is what a lover of science fiction he was. Not just sf movies, but literature,too. According to Locus Online:

[Ebert] published two SF stories: “After the Last Mass” in Fantastic (1972) and “In Dying Venice” in Amazing (1972). As a teenager he was an active SF fan, contributing letters of comment to various magazines and writing poems for Pat & Dick Lupoff’s Xero in the early ’60s; he also wrote the introduction for The Best of Xero (2004). He was friendly with fans, authors, and editors, including Wilson “Bob” Tucker and Ed Gorman, and published his own fanzine, Stymie.

His own fanzine! Holy crap! And of course, Ebert became a fixture on Twitter in the past few years, becoming probably the most re-tweeted personality in the social website’s history.

His recent memoir, Life Itself, currently sits in my Kindle, still unread since its purchase a year and a half ago. I think I’m going to rectify that shortly.

I doubt there will ever again be two film critics so well known, so beloved, and so influential as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And now they’re both gone. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be proved wrong. Maybe one day there will be a new movie review program, probably online, that will capture the nation’s attention the way theirs did. But until then, the balcony is closed.

3 responses to “Roger Ebert, R.I.P.”

  1. Chandler Klang Smith says:

    You should check out http://redlettermedia.com/, if you aren’t already familiar with them. I believe Ebert was a champion of their work, and you can definitely see his influence on their show Half in the Bag.

  2. Chandler Klang Smith says:

    PS Also, yeah — just heartbreaking that he’s gone.

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