Commentary

Ebert Saw Us Through The Movies

It could be argued that no one person sold more movie tickets over the last generation than Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at 70. It could also be argued that no one was responsible for the tanking of more blustering multimillion-dollar movie campaigns from the late ’60s right up until his final tweets earlier this week when he announced he was taking ”a leave of presence” to undergo radiation for a recurrence of cancer that had taken most of his jaw and would henceforth only write about “the vulnerability that accompanies illness.” 

But in typical fashion, Ebert wasn’t going to leave us on a dour note. “On good days,” he continued, “I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” He also said he would be “throwing myself” into Ebert Digital and “the redesigned, highly interactive and searchable Rogerebert.com.” He was, in other words, continuing to publicly redefine, quite literally, the face of a devastating illness.

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Ebert and former TV show co-cost, the late Gene Siskel, certainly had a major impact on the way we, the audience, judge what we view on the big screen. Most, but not every, flick had its strengths and weaknesses, blunt-force absurdities and delicious subtleties, but in the end it all came down to a thumbs up or thumbs down, which is to say that we either buy the ticket (and Milk Duds) or we don’t. Hand gestures on TV aside -– a convention he invented but was quite ambivalent about -- his words could be trenchant, amusing and definitive in the same fell swoop of the critic’s ax.

In a round–up of the “10 Movies Roger Ebert Really Hated,” Mental_Floss’ Stacy Conradt putsThe Brown Bunny” at No. 2. Giving it zero stars in print, he wrote:I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than “The Brown Bunny.’”

 As for “Freddy Got Fingered,” he wrote: “This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” Neither film fared well at the box office, presumably, though it would admittedly be a stretch to pin that on Ebert.

Ebert himself wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 titled “Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists” in which he opined, “no list of films has the slightest significance, unless it involves box-office receipts.” 

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Kara Spak rounds up reactions to Ebert’s death, from Barack Obama to The Strawberry Alarm Clock band, which appeared in the campy 1970 film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which Ebert wrote (and was evidently quite proud of). The extent of his impact would be difficult to pin down, given its ongoing legacy in the people he influenced. 

“Director Christopher Nolan regularly watched Mr. Ebert's television show while growing up and recalled the ‘great thrill’ he felt the first time he saw one of his films -- 2002's ‘Insomnia’ -- get a thumbs up from Mr. Ebert,” Stephen Miller writes in the Wall Street Journal

Said Nolan: “Seeing someone on TV who loved movies, who was discussing them, thinking about them and really caring about them made an impression.”

If Hollywood wanted to portray the childhood of a newspaperman of the Boomer era (although he was born a tad early, in 1942), Ebert’s upbringing in Urbana, Ill., could provide the perfect plot synopsis, complete with a neighborhood newspaper published in his basement, stints at all of his schools’ publications, work as a scholastic sports stringer for a small daily and a major in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was editor of The Daily Illini. He also was president of the United States Student Press Association, as Douglas Martin recounts in the New York Times.

He was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times to be a feature writer following some graduate work in English lit and, remarkably in any age, that paper remained his base of operations from the era of Underwood typewriters though the dawn of Twitter. He has more than 800,000 followers at https://twitter.com/ebertchicago.

“Though his knowledge of film was limited, he was named the paper’s first movie critic in 1967, when he was 24; newspapers at the time wanted young film critics to speak to the young audiences being attracted to movies like “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” as well as films by directors of the French New Wave, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard,” Martin writes.

The New York Times’ Mekado Murphy and Michael Roston track reactions to his death on Twitter, which he took to like a kid, with flying thumbs at a time “when he could no longer use his own voice, a result of his struggle with cancer.”

Ebert’s last published words were: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.” Even in the midst of an awful and painful demise, he was able to spin a Hollywood ending.

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