Roger Ebert passed away a year ago. I remember reading his reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times as a kid. I remember them being smart, adult, yet accessible and clearly written by someone who loved movies, and who tended to know them. I didn't always agree with what he wrote -- sometimes he could get a little holier-than-thou, but he was a critic, after all -- but I was almost always entertained and informed by them. One of my favorite lines in any movie review to this day was in his write-up of Jesus Christ Superstar. After all these many years, I didn't remember the exact phrasing of the set-up, but happily I found it on RogerEbert.com. It came when he was summarizing the plot, story explains that most worried of all the people around Christ was Judas, who advises his friend to keep a low profile. Ebert then writes --
"He doesn’t of course; but in deference to the several readers who didn’t like my review of 'The Last of Sheila' because I gave away too much of the plot, I won’t reveal what happens to Christ in the end."
(While I do think critics do give away too much of the stories -- a tough balancing act, I admit, when you're trying to explain what you think about a film -- it's hard to not love the snarky sarcasm of that line, something you don't tend to see in movie reviews.)
When Ebert and Gene Siskel teamed up for their now-famous At the Movies, it began life (if I recall correctly) on the local PBS station, WTTW, then then exploded across the country. I was always an "Ebert man." Most of that was because he was my film reviewer, and Siskel wrote for the hated Tribune. But also Ebert knew what he was talking about, and Siskel always seemed to just be winging it. It's been well-written how the two men didn't like each other at first, and then grew to have great affection for one another. All I can say is that in those early shows, the condescending disdain (usually from Ebert) was polite, but dripping. Siskel's potshot's at Ebert were more defensive in retaliation. Even when they later grew to have a great friendship, Ebert still had a sort of, "Gene, I really actually know more than you about this stuff" attitude. It was that love-hate rapport from two people who actually knew each other very well, working as rivals in the same town that made their give-and-take so special, something most shows that tried to emulate never grasped.
To honor his passing, a number of film critics who were helped along the way by Ebert were asked to give their thoughts about him. You can read the whole thing here on the Robert Ebert website, but I just wanted to post below what was written by my friend, the oft-mentioned here Nell Minow.
Nell, if you're new to these parts, is a leading world expert on corporate governance, often testifying before Congress on the subject, but also in the other part of her "let me tell you my opinion of what I think" life, she's a top notch film critic, having written several books on film and reviewing on her Movie Mom website. She filled in for Ebert on occasion at the Sun-Times, and when he had his new TV series a few years ago, he asked Nell to be part of it. So, she knows well of which she speaks.
Here's what she wrote --
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to read Roger Ebert's very first movie review in the place that would be his home for nearly half a century, The Chicago Sun-Times. I was a movie-mad teenager living in the Chicago suburbs and my mother, trying to persuade me to read the newspaper, told me that the new movie critic was closer to my age than hers. That got me interested. Roger was just 25 when he reviewed the French film "Galia" but it was all there: the passion for cinematic storytelling, the deep knowledge of genre and history, the confidence and precision of his judgment, and above all, the pure glory of his writing.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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