As far as a personal reminiscence about the great Roger Ebert goes I’m a little short of any personal ones. I never met the man. I was just another viewer of his television shows with Gene Siskel, Sneak Previews and its successor, At the Movies. But if I have to offer one, here’s mine. Back in the day when video stores still existed and dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was a place called Video Central where I’d go to get my fix when it was time to rent a movie.
Video Central had their own system of how they organized their films. You had the new releases and then broken down into categories were the drama, action, comedy, horror, foreign, documentaries, music videos, kids movies, cult classics, the X-rated dirty movies and in its own section was one simply entitled, “Siskel and Ebert.”
That was how I knew Siskel (the tall, thin one) and Ebert (the short, round one) were setting the standard on how to critique movies whether they intended to or not. The premise was devilishly simple: Two rival critics from competing newspapers sittin’ around and shooting the shit about movies. It was pure genius! Ebert, 70, finally succumbed after a long bout with cancer following his colleague and rival, Siskel who passed away in 1999.
What made Siskel and Ebert true American originals was they gave a face and form to the anonymous world of film criticism. They never claimed they were the best critics, but they became the best known. “Two thumbs up” became their catch phrase and boy, did other critics hate Siskel and Ebert’s guts. Part of that hate was born out of simple green-eyed jealousy. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris commanded far more respect from their peers than the Chicago-based duo, but if I held up a picture would you recognize them?
Armond White, one of the most hateful of Ebert haters, and now unemployed critic threw Ebert under the bus and then backed it up on him in a 2010 interview. “I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather,” White said.
“I think he does NOT have the training. I think he simply had the position. I think he does NOT have the training. I’VE got the training. And frankly, I don’t care how that sounds, but the fact is, I’ve got the training. I’m a pedigreed film critic. I’ve studied it. I know it. And I know many other people who’ve studied it as well, studied it seriously,” White said. “Ebert just simply happened to have the job. And he’s had the job for a long time. He does not have the foundation. He simply got the job.”
Ebert got a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism. That’s a pretty impressive way to confirm his pedigree. White longs for the day when critics wrote elegant essays weighing the artistic merits of a film and drew a reasoned conclusion of which were worth celebration or condemnation. Ebert would write his review, conclude a movie was worth a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” and move on.
I’ve written my share of reviews and while its cool to get in to see movies for free, nothing is more of thief than a time-wasting piece of crap.
The big difference between White and Ebert’s approaches were both liked movies, but only Ebert liked the audience. He brought film criticism out of the balcony and put it clear, unambiguous and accessible way. Ebert was educated about the cinema but unlike a pretentious bore like White, Ebert never talked down to people. I’ve found most readers of reviews don’t want to be talked down to, don’t want to be lectured and don’t want critics flaunting their education.
Ebert never lost his love of movies or his love of pointing his readers to ones worth their time and warning them away from those that were not. Siskel and Ebert inspired a “do it your self” style that thousands of movie, music, video games, comic books and television reviewers have taken to heart and online to the Internet where web pages and podcasts have replaced newspapers and television as the primary means for consumer information. You can draw a straight line from the populist elements Siskel and Ebert brought to the movies and the evolution in contemporary arts critiquing.
Some may denounce Ebert for his part in dragging film criticism out of stuffy academia and into an easily accessible format, but they are missing the message. A thumb turned up or down didn’t kill off pomposity and pretentiousness from the cinema cognoscenti. There is still a place for the intellectual analysis, but now it is balanced by being opened up the blue-collar, ordinary working stiff fanboy who has studied the ins and outs of Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Bergman, and Scorsese every bit as diligently as a self-important ass like Armond White.
Thanks Roger for all the reviews, all the books, and all the love for movies. I would salute you, but two thumbs up feels right.