RIP Roger Ebert

I heard Kenneth Turan’s obituary for Roger Ebert on NPR. Ebert reviewed 306 movies in 2012, a personal most, despite or maybe because of his ongoing health problems. He was also, as everyone knows, a Twitter power user and a fierce progressive. He made it to 70, which is a good run given the circumstances.

I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert (or looking for them, after the move from PBS to syndication and many name changes). I consider myself well-informed about movies and cinema history, and the foundation for that knowledge was the reviews and arguments Gene Siskel and Ebert presented on their show. They reviewed blockbuster crowd-pleasers, but they also looked at art-house films I never would have heard of otherwise. If not for their show, I would never have seen My Life As A Dog, The Dresser, My Dinner With Andre, or a host of other indie or foreign movies I saw and loved, either when they were at the cinema or years later via home rental. I wrote a few movie reviews for my college newspaper, and I felt like I channeled one or the other of them whenever I sat down to begin.

Siskel was the more intellectual of the two, and the better observer. He dissected the films he saw with a surgeon’s skill, wry, parsimonious and unsentimental. I always felt smart when I agreed with Gene.

Roger’s response to movies was more emotional, with less insight. I used to think this was because he was less intelligent, but in time I grew to realize he was just more forgiving and sentimental, which is also a valuable point of view for a critic. His enthusiasm was infectious; he talked with his hands and bounced up and down in his theater seat when he was particularly vexed or delighted by the film under discussion. He’s famous for his witty jabs at bad movies, but he didn’t really enjoy them, and doesn’t seem to have recognized (as I generally do not) a “so bad it’s good” category. My favorite quote from him is not any of these zingers, but “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” I always felt more humane when I agreed with Roger.

Of course, sometimes the movies themselves weren’t the main draw of the show; it was the back-and-forth conversation between Roger and Gene, which frequently devolved into an argument even when talking about a movie they both liked or didn’t like. Their points of view were different enough for them to complain when the other shared an opinion about a movie, but for the wrong reason. The show became a buddy comedy, and was fun to watch on that ground alone. Sometimes Gene made subtle fat jokes about Roger. Roger frequently tweaked Gene for his baldness. They never got angry at each other and you could always sense the fondness beneath the annoyance. If their show had been a movie, it was brilliantly cast.

Siskel died in 1999. Now Roger has passed, and with much more dignity than I’ll be able to muster when my time comes. I’ll miss him, but two thumbs up for a life well lived.

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