Arts and Culture

Burgess Says Farewell to Roger Ebert

He was a lover of film. His boss Conrad Black, not so much.

By Steve Burgess 5 Apr 2013 |

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee twice a month.

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Two thumbs up for a life well lived. Ebert was as principled about politics as he was about film.

Roger Ebert? A pushover. A fountain of wrong. A chump, a shill, a sell-out. Wouldn't know a bad film if it puked in his popcorn. Ebert? He gave thumbs up to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Speed II: Cruise Control, for God's sake. The man has all the discriminating taste of a bear in a dumpster.

Perhaps I owe an apology to America's most famous film critic. But I like to think he would have understood. Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times reviewer who died of cancer Thursday at age 70, shot to fame with just those sorts of vociferous, occasionally testy discussions, long conducted with the late Gene Siskel. To a great many readers and viewers it was his opinion that mattered. But for some, Ebert's lesson was about having an opinion -- and knowing why.

Eventually -- it took awhile -- I came to realize that despite my many differences with the man I wasn't really disagreeing with Ebert. I was following him. Like so many other wannabee Siskels, I was just trying to get in on the discussion. Disagreeing with Ebert was probably the best tribute to the man. If your subject was movies, you and Roger Ebert would always be on the same page.

A humbling knowledge

Ebert joined the Sun-Times in 1966. Siskel and Ebert first appeared together on Chicago public channel WTTW in November 1975 with a show called "Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You," eventually going national in 1978 as "Sneak Previews." Their later departure from public television shocked some -- "I didn't want the rest of my career to be my contribution to PBS," Ebert later cracked -- but they reached a wider audience via syndication with "At the Movies." They became without doubt America's primary arbiters of cinematic taste, with viewers often dividing into camps depending on which critical gladiator matched up more closely with their own preferences. But it wasn't necessary to agree with either man or even to take their opinions straight. Once you got to know them and their general attitudes, you could sometimes predict your own coming reaction to a movie even if it disagreed with both Siskel's and Ebert's.

I tended to be more of a Siskel guy. But as time went on -- particularly after Siskel's untimely death in 1999 -- I found myself agreeing with Ebert more often, not just on individual reviews but on his general attitude and approach to films. When attempting to justify my dislike of flashy computer-generated effects, especially the kind used to show actors accomplishing physical impossibilities, I would often find myself quoting one of Ebert's favourite maxims: "If anything can happen, who cares what happens?"

Moreover it was impossible to read or listen to Ebert without being humbled by his understanding of film and impressed by his commitment to the medium. More important than any particular opinion was the certain knowledge that Ebert's loyalty was to the paying customer, not the studio or the PR flack. He was a staunch opponent of censorship and neo-cons too, launching savage attacks on Conrad Black, his boss as owner of the Sun-Times. Ebert also had a memorable feud with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, penning the following after the Sun-Times dropped O'Reilly's column: "My editor informs me that very few readers complained about the disappearance of your column, adding, many more complained about Nancy. I know I did. That was the famous Ernie Bushmiller comic strip in which Sluggo explained that wow was mom spelled upside-down."

Personal issues

It did seem to me however Ebert could be unduly influenced by personal connections. He named The Color Purple as best film of 1985. As a former suitor of Oprah Winfrey perhaps Ebert should have recused himself. And after being given exclusive access to George Lucas and the Skywalker Ranch in the days before the feverishly-anticipated 1999 release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Ebert delivered his verdict: "My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration" At least he did look rather glum while delivering the line, surely one of the more misbegotten judgements from a major movie critic.

Ebert made a distinction between personal and objective criticism. He named Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time but admitted that his true favourite was probably a film that had more personal meaning for him: La Dolce Vita, one of the first films he ever reviewed and one that he said first reflected his dreams and later his actual life. Although all criticism is necessarily subjective, Ebert's distinction between rational artistic assessment and personal, emotional appeal is one that critics ought to be mindful of. There are films I rank among my favourites but which I am reluctant to recommend, since my love for them seems to spring from reactions and associations that probably exist only within my own cranium.

Heaven's cineplex

Almost to the end Ebert's opinions could make me shake my head. I cannot believe he approved of Snow White and the Huntsman. But then Ebert liked more movies than I do, probably because he simply liked movies.

Ebert did not believe in an afterlife. For a man who spent much of his professional life immersed in fantasy worlds he was a no-nonsense guy. Yet it would be nice to imagine that somewhere, brand-new episodes of "At the Movies" are now being scheduled. Meanwhile the best tribute to Roger Ebert is to keep watching -- and caring enough to have an opinion.  [Tyee]

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