Remembering Roger Ebert
The famed Chicago film journalist represented the comfortable cohabitation of the Geek with the Intellectual
I’ve been thinking about Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who passed away in 2013. Settling into my still-early fifties inspires reflection on influences, and his go back to the late 1970s, when U.S. cinema was turning the corner from the occasionally thoughtful and subversive to basically the genesis of what we have now: spectacle and artifice.
Ebert and my love and appreciation for film are so inextricably bound up that I cannot think about one without the other. When great actor passes away — a Robert Mitchum or a Paul Newman — we remember them and their movies. When we recall Ebert, we think of the movies.
As a kid, I watched Ebert (and Siskel) before they were famous, back when WTTW’s Sneak Previews was picked up by PBS. More often than not, they reviewed films I was too young to see (even I Spit On Your Grave, which they annihilated) but I was still enthralled by the discussions. What I came away with from those arguments was a perspective that remains part of who I am today: Cinema as not simply a pleasant diversion, but an art form worthy of serious consideration, one we should think and talk about, even if the talking leads to arguing.
The appeal of Ebert was the comfortable cohabitation of the Geek with the Intellectual. Here is a man whose list of “Great Movies” on his website includes Star Wars, (the first one) E.T., The Extra-terrestrial, and Goldfinger. But one also find Cries and Whispers, La Dolce Vita and Shoah. I remember when Ebert thrust his famous thumb up for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I also remember that not long after, he and his famous sparring partner devoted a show to exploring how the summer blockbuster juggernaut was dumbing films down, creating a cinema not for adults who flocked to more serious fare during the 1970s, but for their kids who were treated to the spectacle of Harrison Ford cracking a whip or Roy Scheider blowing up a shark with an oxygen tank.
Perhaps more than any single individual, Ebert’s enthusiasm for films inspired me to go beyond blockbusters in search of more intelligent (and, in hindsight, less…