Remembering Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, started as the newspaper's critic in 1967 and held that position until his death. Forty-six years to the day. I would imagine most people became aware of Ebert due to his association with another legendary Chicago film critic, Gene Siskel (who wrote for rival newspaper, the Chicago Tribune) and their movie review television show "Siskel & Ebert," which debuted in 1975 under title "Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You." Their association ended in 1999 following Siskel’s death, though the show continued.
Watching “Siskel & Ebert,” even now, thanks to the internet, truly inspired me and motivated me. It made me want to write about movies—to discuss them in a different way. Not simply saying "I liked this and didn't like that," but a serious, intelligent conversation about movies. Movies are important. They are windows into the world. They allow us to look at society and explore themes. “Siskel & Ebert” taught all of us that. And they made it look fun.
When I was in my teens and starting to look at movies in a more serious way, Ebert was someone who guided me on my wonderful cinematic journey. He introduced me to French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and the work of Powell & Pressburger. His approval or disapproval, as was sometimes the case, affected my movie going experience. His opinion was the ultimate validation of a movie’s worth in my eyes. I would make sure I would see every movie on his annual “top ten” list. If Mr. Ebert thought these were the best films of the year, there’s a pretty good chance, they would be the films we’d be talking about for years to come.
Over the years Ebert and I differed in our views. Like a young child who has been nurtured by his parents, I set off on my own. I became more confident in my taste. I had discovered themes that became meaningful to me. I discovered filmmakers who inspired me. And, yes, often it was at odds with Ebert's taste.
But, it was because of him I took my first step. That I can never forget. And to be honest, every now and then, I'd still check what he had to say about a movie. If we both liked it, I felt it was a way of saying, "See, I have good taste in movies. I know what I'm talking about. Roger Ebert liked it too."
Now with Ebert’s passing—and the death of Andrew Sarris last year—an era has ended. People no longer talk about movies the same way. Writing about movies can be an art form and major publications no longer have critics at the caliber of Roger Ebert writing for them. Sometimes you question whether a critic knows the history of cinema? Can they, at the drop of a hat, discuss the works of Buster Keaton, Federico Fellini or Werner Herzog (all favorites of Ebert)?
Whether or not you agreed with Ebert’s three star or four star review was immaterial in my opinion. You trusted him because you knew this man knew movies. He understood the rich history of film. He’s seen the great works. That level of trust is now at a low, if not completely gone.
But Ebert wouldn’t say all is lost. On his blog he always encouraged young writers, myself included, to start a blog, write about movies, get your voice heard. He knew his generation would have to pass the baton on to the next. And he believed there were gifted young writers out there who have a passion for films. His entire career was built around telling how good other people are. His words carried weight with me. I never stopped writing about movies, talking about movies, dissecting them the way he would. Secretly I always hoped what people said about Ebert, they would say about me; there's a guy that loves movies. To be thought of that way, would have been the highest compliment a person could pay me. I think Ebert felt the same way. His life was consumed by movies. With that, I’d like to pay him my highest compliment by saying, at one time there was a man who loved movies and now he is gone.
Alex Udvary is a Chicago based freelance film critic and commentator. All of his work can be read at www.alex-udvary.blogspot.com