Smile Politely

Why I am, I think, grieving Roger Ebert with unexpected sorrow

Most of my friends are 5–10 years younger than me, or more. so I frequently have to explain that there was a time, really not that long ago, before cable TV, VHS, home computers, video games, internet, smart phones, digital music formats, Netflix, social media, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and a bunch of other time-leeches. Even color TV was a mark of privilege when I was a kid. I have to explain this. Fifteen years without overt war or ubiquitous digital entertainment — unimaginable. And you couldn’t just get anything. If you wanted a Bowie album, you had to put in some (literal) legwork. You had to meet entertainment halfway — like check out a record from the library and listen to the whole thing, or read an entire book.

Or go to a movie, which was a wonderful event. Champaign-Urbana had six to seven movie theaters (including the Art, which was a porn house until about 1987), of which the Virginia and Orpheum were the most distinguished.

With four TV channels offering pre-Simpsons programming that only nostalgia-addled people would claim was of any quality, any half-good show would draw the entire family (you had to watch them live when they aired — again, I don’t know how to make that clear). For my family, one such show was At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two quarrely Statler-and-Waldorf types, with all the loving acrimony of a married couple, who would show clips from new movies and debate the merit of these fresh films, arriving at a verdict with a sort of nuanced three-star rating system. I still use the phrase “two thumbs up,” though I’m not always conscious of where it came from, and the people I say it to probably never knew.

At the Movies was gospel. We chose our films based on this show (PG or G-rated, anyway — eventually PG-13). I think the scene in Alien where the green blip is moving toward the crew member in the ventilation tunnel was even scarier when Siskel and Ebert showed it to us than it was in the film itself. Same with Halloween, when Jamie Lee Curtis is hiding in the closet.

These guys were not pedigreed scholars (to my knowledge) or Hollywood insiders, and, to his last, Ebert remained as faithful to my community as my family was to his show, and all of us to the Virginia Theater, where Roger and I both had many formative cinematic experiences. I saw Tron there as a wide-eyed child when it was released, and again, through more jaded eyes, when Ebert brought it back to one of the first Ebertfests.

So he was an influential film critic for decades. Think how full of shit he could have been. Think how many Tom Cruises would have liked to get some blow up his nose. Think how easily he could have moved somewhere with no winter and gone to rich asshole parties every weekend. Think how tenuous and fragile integrity is, and the overwhelming passion that must have fueled him. Even when he hated movies, we had fun watching him do it.

Is that why I grieve him?


I grieve him because as a three-time literature degree recipient, as a documentary-crazed rock aficionado, and as one who holds some measure of appreciation for all the other arts — as one who TRIES TO READ THE POMPOUS LINER NOTES IN GYORGY LIGETI CDs — I conclude, after a few hours of soul-searching, that Roger Ebert must have been one of the least full-of-shit human beings ever to wear the crown of “critic.” Academic writers are often art-proof politicians. Rock critics can be insufferable, joyless, fact-checking, name-dropping competitive suck-ups, often writing in trite and pretentious similes to obscure their corrupt ignorance of music theory. I never read the text in art books, I just look at the paintings. I don’t believe book reviewers very often fully read the best-selling books they fawn over.

One of Roger Ebert’s curious accomplishments, through his accessible and unpretentious writing, was to ignore and flatten the class distinction between art film and entertainment. I felt he’d give as much thought to Bridesmaids as to La Dolce Vita, and do so not to be postmodern or populist or to prove a point, but to share his love of film as filtered through his own generous, honest tastes and love of art rather than through class boundaries, erudition, studio favors (or so I like to believe), or to show how sophisticated he thought he was. I sometimes avoided his reviews of movies he adored, because his writing was thorough and I didn’t want spoilers — I wanted to experience the film as raw as he did — but I always like reading what he wrote.

I can’t offhand think of anybody who can fill his shoes as critic, in film or any other art form, as an honest, sentimental enthusiast who wants to share the joy of responding to art, rather than to pursue some murky, self-seeking agenda.

Bye Eeb. Glad I got to see you onstage, in later years with your awesome wife and/or voice synthesizer standing in for your failing vocal cords, and I’ll always admire that that disease disfiguring your body did nothing but enervate your spirit to love movies more. Can’t see that happening to Tom Cruise. We pledge to keep your downstate festival rocking.


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