As a movie geek and filmmaker it is hard imagining a world without Roger Ebert, but that world has come. For my entire life he has been part of the movie landscape, at first alongside Gene Siskel, then Richard Roeper, and then, online and on Twitter. His copyrighted phrases ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ are part of the lexicon and have been since before I was born. Most people don’t give a shit what film critics have to say; someone who goes to ten movies a year wants something completely different from a film than one who sees a hundred or more in that same span. But a lot of people listened to Roger Ebert, even when they disagreed with him, even when he was wrong (which he was plenty of the time). If you ask a hundred people anywhere to name the first film critic that crosses their minds, ninety-nine of them will say Roger Ebert.
I met him once.
Park City, Utah. January 1999. Fresh out of film school. Not yet a resident of Los Angeles. My very first film festival and it was one of the big ones. It was an unforgettable week for me. I met personal hero Robert Altman, got to see Errol Morris speak, was passed a joint by Liev Schreiber, and met the man who would one day direct my first (and to this day only) produced screenplay. There was a lot of alcohol, I remember that, and it was fucking cold.
On the second or third day of my adventure, I was in line for a movie (which one I don’t remember; when you’re seeing three or four a day they kind of blur together) and felt a large displacement of air and space behind me. A presence. I turned around, already exhausted and fighting a cold, and there stood a film icon. He was in no way a skinny man, but I remember him not being as large as I thought he would be. We had one of those celebrity moments where it registered instantly on my face that I knew who he was. But, then again, who didn’t? We were at fucking Sundance. Everyone knew who he was.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” he replied, in that instantly recognizable voice that would, over a decade later, be ravaged by cancer and replaced with a computer simulation.
“Enjoying the festival so far?” I didn’t know what else to say.
The man shrugged. “So far, so good.”
“See anything you’ve liked?” What else do you ask a film critic?
“I can’t say. I have to save it for the show. I can’t give away reviews.”
“Oh. I understand.” And I did. It was his bread and butter and what he thought could, especially in those days, make or break a film, especially the small films that used to play at Sundance. But still, I had hoped for a little back and forth. Oh well.
“Cool,” I said. “Enjoy the rest of the fest.”
I turned away, a little underwhelmed by my encounter. A beat later someone tapped on my shoulder. I looked behind me, and Roger Ebert said:
“Check out ‘Ravenous’. I really liked ‘Ravenous’.”
I smiled and thanked him and left him alone and filed into whatever movie we were waiting to see. I didn’t see Antonia Bird’s ‘Ravenous’ by the end of the festival. I had my week planned down to the hour and there was no room for it. I had really just been making small talk, but it felt pretty cool to get a recommendation from Roger Ebert.
Until I saw ‘Ravenous’ when it came out on video. That movie is a piece of shit. Truly.
“Holy cow,” I thought. “I got punked by Roger Ebert.”
But then I checked out his review. He gave it 3 out of 4 stars, calling it ‘the kind of movie where you savor the texture of the filmmaking’.
He hadn’t been playing me. He had just been wrong.
My very good friend Chuck Canzoneri wrote on Twitter today:
“Roger Ebert is a major reason why I love movies so much. He taught me the twin joys of watching and talking passionately about film.”
He was most certainly a man passionate about film. No one agreed with him all the time, especially his partners Siskel and Roeper, which of course created the best moments of ‘At the Movies’. The next days will be flooded with obits and eulogies, telling the man’s life story, tracing his path from the Sun Times to TV to the internet to the battle with cancer that took his voice and then his life. I am not qualified to do such a thing nor am I attempting to. Yes, he wrote ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ and, yes, he gave ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control’ a positive review and ‘The Usual Suspects’ a negative one. You will read about his feud with Vincent Gallo (who has to be feeling pretty awful tonight), the heroic love and support he received at the end from his amazing wife, Chaz, and how Twitter gave him a voice when disease took his real one.
I’m sure someone will mention ‘Hoop Dreams’, a great documentary that Ebert almost single-handedly brought into the spotlight with his ferocious love for it. He was often a great champion of smaller films that needed it. If you only know Ebert from watching him on television, do yourself a favor and read his actual print reviews. As entertaining as ‘At the Movies’ was, his real gift was as a writer. When he loved a film, the enthusiasm he felt for it often jumped off the page at you and made you excited to run to the theater to see what all the fuss was about.
Conversely, if he hated a film, he scorched it to the fucking ground. Tore it limb from limb. Pulled out its heart, showed it to it, then ate it in front of its children. He wrote a book called ‘I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie’, a collection of his harshest reviews, and it’s a great read. With a few hundred words he could destroy your dreams and dance on your grave.
People call him a ‘critic’, but I disagree. There’s a difference between a critic and a reviewer. Ebert, to me, was a missing link, a bridge between these two easily-confused occupations. He was not Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, but he was also not Harry Knowles. His knowledge of film far surpassed anyone who writes for the million movie websites out there, but his concern was mostly with telling you whether a movie was good or bad, not with studying art and theory of cinema. He was not scholarly nor was he an internet troll. He existed in the gray in-between. He was the last of the critics and the first of the reviewers, but not wholly one or the other.
He was not a man without faults. His views on things such as video games, 3D, and digital filmmaking often felt antiquated, no matter how well-argued. He would sometimes sit defiantly atop his high horse and decry immorality in films he found offensive, even though he liked (and wrote) a good exploitation film now and again.
The biggest problem I have with the legacy of Mr. Ebert is with his most enduring contribution to the cultural zeitgeist, the thing he will be most remembered for:
I hate the fucking thumbs.
‘At the Movies’ reduced films into two categories: good and bad. Worth seeing or not worth seeing. Gold or shit. This binary approach to critiquing art left no room for nuance or discussion. And it has influenced many, many, ratings systems over the years like ‘SEE IT or SKIP IT’ or ‘BUY IT, RENT IT, OR PASS’. These reductive phrases do a disservice to both the films and the audience. I have a hard time understanding how the man who pioneered ‘Thumbs Up’ to the point where he had it copyrighted and wouldn’t allow ABC to use it on their revamped ‘At the Movies’ was the same man who seemed to love and understand movies, in all shapes and sizes, so much. In his print pieces, Ebert would often discuss many facets of the film he was reviewing. But, on television, he and Siskel or Roeper would issue their opinions like Roman emperors deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator.
Thumbs up, the movie lives.
Thumbs down, it dies.
I, unfortunately, think the thumbs, cultural phenomena they may have become, did damage to film discourse, eliminating the educated critic and paving the way for the modern reviewer, whose only job seems to be telling their readers if they liked a movie or not.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t have loved a big ‘TWO THUMBS UP’ on a poster for a film of mine, but I am sure Mr. Ebert didn’t see my first film and, now, he will not be around to see my next. For several generations of filmmakers, Mr. Ebert was the father everyone was desperate to please. No matter how arty and pretentious and independent and anti-establishment some of us can get (and I can get plenty all of those things), there are two things all filmmakers want, even if they claim otherwise: an Oscar and a ‘Thumbs Up’ from Roger Ebert.
And now I have to settle for just the Oscar.
I don’t know how to wrap this up other than to say that the death of Mr. Ebert, a man I spoke to for two minutes over fourteen years ago, hit me hard today, hard enough to make me sit down and write this. A lot of my friends are feeling the same way, if for no other reason than the fact that he loved movies the same way we love movies. Watching them, thinking about them, writing about them, talking about them.
God, I love talking about movies. I would have loved to talk about movies with Roger Ebert. That would have been a dream.
First thing I would have said, though, would have been, “Man, you were so fucking wrong about ‘Ravenous’.”
Chad J. Shonk
April 4, 2013
San Francisco, CA