I first became aware of Roger Ebert as one half of “Sneak Previews,” or “At the Movies,” or whatever the show was called when I was a kid. Apart from vague memories of bad sweaters, petulant arguments, and the ending tagline “the balcony is closed,” I don’t have much recollection of Siskel and Ebert’s show from those days. Its strongest legacy may be that for years I thought of Ebert as the second half of a compound name, with “Siskeland” invariably preceding it, in thought if not in speech.
When I was about 14, I received – possibly as a birthday or Christmas present – a copy of Ebert’s book, the 1988 edition of the “Movie Home Companion.” This fat tome contained more information about movies than I had absorbed in my life up to that point. If as a child I had mainly thought of movies as a delivery mechanism for tales about the Galaxy Far, Far, Away, as an adolescent I had Ebert’s writing to thank for the understanding that film was an art form decades old, continents wide, sophisticated and mature. At the back of the book were essays like “My Ten Great Films, and Why,” in which I first learned about “Vertigo” and “Taxi Driver” and “Citizen Kane.” In his review of Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” Ebert wrote that it “is the kind of film that makes you want to go and see a Scorsese movie.” What did that mean, I wondered? What was a true “Scorsese movie”? I would find out two years later when, at the Kahala Mall outside Honolulu on Christmas Eve, I saw “Goodfellas” for the first time. Ebert’s writing opened up names, worlds, contexts, vaults full of material that I knew it would take me decades to peruse.
A few years later, as a high school student, I attended a symposium at the 1991 Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu. Ebert was there, moderating; I remember watching him walk down the aisle toward the stage. The talk had some connection to local high schools – perhaps the featured speakers were alumni – and Ebert amusingly mangled the schools’ names, rendering my alma mater Punahou as ‘Puna-HOW.’ One component of the talk focused on the tortuous development process by which screenplays were acquired by studios and turned into movies. A teenaged smartass, I raised my hand and asked why, if the development process was so involved, so many terrible screenplays ended up getting produced. The room laughed, and Ebert with it. I don’t remember what comment – if any – he made about my question, but years later, when I was a full-time scriptreader and deeply embedded in that dubious development process myself, I wondered if Ebert had been as annoyed at that pissant, holier-than-thou adolescent as my own older self would have been. Probably not: Ebert, after all, had no skin in the game of making movies, only of watching and describing them. He would, I imagine, have welcomed any snot-nosed kid who expressed however clumsily a desire to hold Hollywood’s feet to the fire and stand up for quality. I like to think he spared me a kind thought that evening.
The TV show was always around in the background, and seemed until Gene Siskel’s shockingly early death as if it would go on for decades more. But I gravitated more toward Ebert’s written reviews, in which he perfected a clear, crystalline style that seemed drawn more from some post-Twain mainstream of American colloquial writing than from the relatively hermetic world of film criticism. His reviews were often bigger, deeper, richer than the movies they ostensibly addressed, and were roomy enough to contain delightful digressions on life in general. At the end of his review of Richard Linklater’s “SubUrbia,” Ebert wrote: “There is, I believe, a seductive quality to idleness. To be without ambition or plans is to rebuke those who have them: It is a refusal to enlist in the rat race, and there may even be a sad courage in it. But what Linklater sees is that it is so damned boring.” At the beginning of his “Swingers” review, he wrote: “…the new American frontier is the all-night diner, with Formica tops and ketchup and sugar on every table, and a waitress who writes down your order on a green and white Guest Check. And in these coffee shops, which reach out like an endless progression of stops on the highway to fame, there are countless young men like the heroes of ‘Swingers,’ who are so near to stardom they can reach out and touch it, and so far away they can't afford to pick up the check.” Passages like this are all over his reviews, nuggets to be excavated.
And, of course, Ebert’s satirical side could be savage. I have never read a better put-down than the concluding paragraphs of his “Armageddon” review: “Staggering into the silence of the theater lobby after the ordeal was over, I found a big poster that was fresh off the presses with the quotes of junket blurbsters. ‘It will obliterate your senses!’ reports David Gillin, who obviously writes autobiographically. ‘It will suck the air right out of your lungs!’ vows Diane Kaminsky.
“If it does, consider it a mercy killing.”
When I was a young hopeful film student, I envisioned a day when, having made my mark directing some brilliant debut feature, I might sit across a restaurant table from Ebert for an interview. Then, I would think dreamily to myself, I really would have made it. Such vanities blanch into triviality when I think of the last years of Ebert’s life – how, having made it to a degree few may dare to hope for, he was struck by a ruthless cancer that destroyed his broad jaw; and how, where weaker men would recede into despair, he doubled his industry, embraced new media, and produced some of the best work of his career.