Friday, 5 April 2013

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert.

In the early 90's, when the internet boom was just beginning, I was fortunate enough to subscribe to CompuServe, the main competitor to AOL, where I met and interacted with a man named Roger Ebert. Roger was the first celebrity I had ever personally talked to (although he would cringe at being called a 'celebrity'), and I enjoyed discussing my favorite films and getting feedback from the world's best known (along with Gene Siskel) film critic. He was always polite and appreciative of the opinions of everyone on the site, even those who posted near-illiterate drivel about the misunderstood genius of Pauly Shore.

I love movies. I always have, and since my days working in a video store, always tried to see "good" movies. I realize that everyone has their taste, and what is "good" to me may not be to you.....but in my opinion, if it was good enough to receive the much-coveted "two thumbs up" rating from Siskel and Ebert (and, later, Ebert and Richard Roeper), it was good enough to warrant my attention. Of course I wasn't able to see EVERY film they recommended, or even close to it, but I went out of my way to search out films they championed. In many cases, they were films that I had not heard of, or had no interest in seeing. Off the top of my head, I can think of so many great films that I saw based solely on their specific recommendations:

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down
Life is Beautiful
Do The Right Thing
Schindler's List
The Joy Luck Club
The Player
Short Cuts
Leaving Las Vegas
The Full Monty
In The Company of Men
In The Bedroom
City of God
Thank You for Smoking
Barney's Version
The Artist
Midnight in Paris

....and this little beauty with the strange title, from 1994:

Oh, how many hours of entertainment I owe to them. The films listed above are just the ones that come to mind right now. I am sure I am missing dozens of other great films that I would not have searched out on my own.

Do a search for "Roger Ebert" right now and you will find hundreds of thoughts and tributes to a man who touched so many lives. There is little I can add.

When Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 (my GOD can it really be 14 years ago??), Roger hosted a beautifully touching tribute to his friend and colleague. This is one of a handful of VHS tapes I had kept until less than a month ago when I transferred it to DVD. The quality is pretty awful, but that one will stay in my collection until it's my turn to join them in the balcony.

He was more than a movie critic; he was a champion for smaller independent films (ask Michael Moore where his career would be without S&E's glowing review of "Roger and Me", or Quentin Tarantino). He also was fast to highlight up and coming performers; Siskel and Ebert both panned the 1987 Christopher Reeve movie "Street Smart", but highlighted a terrific performance by a then-unknown actor named Morgan Freeman. Freeman was nominated for an Oscar, likely due in large part to Siskel and Ebert's praise of a great performance in a film that few people saw, or liked. He was a strong advocate for documentaries, often criticizing Hollywood for his perceived lack of support for them, and for their over-reliance on digital effects and what he called "gimmicks", such as 3-D. He railed against the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system, claiming it railed between being too restrictive and too lenient. He was the first film critic awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, in 1975. And, he is one of the only film critics to have actually written a screenplay, for Russ Meyer's 1970 film "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", which is still considered a cult classic by many.

He cared, and wrote, about many things other than movies; from religion to politics, from pop culture to the state of the internet, Roger always had an opinion and was happy to share it with his readers.

And, in the last few years of his life, he became a role model for those dealing with illness. When he lost the bottom part of his jaw, disabling him from speaking or eating, he just said "whatever" and kept doing everything he had already been doing. He was not going to hide his illness, or surrender to it. He even published a cookbook on meals that could be made with a rice cooker....despite the fact that he couldn't eat them.

Although I didn't always agree with his reviews (particularly stunning to me was his horribly-negative review of last year's Les Miserables, my favorite film of the past season and one I know I will always cherish), I always respected his opinions. Most often than not, if he enjoyed a film, I knew I would enjoy it, too.

Two days ago, Roger penned his final blog entry, in which he announced that his cancer had returned and he was planning on taking a "leave of presence". Not going away, but planning on reviewing less films. He wrote:

"It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

No, thank YOU, Roger.

Mr. Ebert was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calories there.

" 'Citizen Kane' and vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream," he answered.

Rest well, Roger. Gene has your seat waiting for you; and I'm sure he has the film and ice cream all ready to go.