Perhaps my earliest memory of Roger Ebert comes from an episode of “Sesame Street”, in which the bespectacled critic got into a heated argument with friend and fellow movie connoisseur Gene Siskel, all at the urging of Oscar of the Grouch. The topic of debate: whether or not it was possible to give a movie a “thumbs sideways”. You know, in case you didn’t LIKE the movie, but you didn’t hate it either. Ebert was all for the horizontal thumb, while Siskel maintained that there were standards that must be upheld. This brief sketch on a children’s television formed my first impressions of Roger Ebert: he was the liberal one, while Siskel was the stickler. This opinion was reinforced over the course of many years of watching the two argue on their own show. Ebert seemed to value entertainment over art, often recommending low brow films as long as they managed to provoke a smile. When Siskel deplored a particular kung-fu film I had wanted to see as a child, it was Ebert who came to its defense, and that was the moment I knew I loved the man.
With the death of Siskel, the mantle of conservative defender of the arts seemed to fall increasingly upon Ebert’s shoulders. As the movies grew louder and dumber, his was voice of reason that insisted on solid storytelling and character development over senseless CGI graphics and explosions. People wonder whether professional critics are needed in this magical age of the Internet–when a host of opinions are readily available on movie blogs and message boards. Roger Ebert’s reviews were the always the proof of the value of informed criticism. Each article was the perfect synthesis of experience and taste. He respected the movies and the intelligence of moviegoers, and suffered through the dreck so we wouldn’t have to. I have watched films of great beauty and spent some of the best hours of my life in the movie theater, and much of those memories are owed to Mr. Ebert.
When I heard about his passing, I actually cried, though I had never met him in person and never even posted a single comment on his blog (which I read faithfully). I always found so much to love and admire about Roger Ebert, even when I occasionally disagreed with him. It’s so strange that one of my long cherished fantasies was to write to him, and now, like a lot of the projects in my life that I put on the back burner, it’s too late.
In one of his last posts on his website, he said he was looking forward to a reduced workload in which he would review only the films he wanted to review. I hope that wherever he is now, there are only good movies playing, and his thumb will never have to point anywhere but up.
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “Watch How You Go”