On April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert passed away after a long battle with cancer. He left behind widow Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert and no children. His legacy, however, was tremendous.
His legacy, obviously, inspired a world of filmmakers. Hoop Dreams director, Steve James who directs Ebert’s posthumous documentary Life Itself owes much to Siskel and Ebert’s tireless praise for his film in 1994. They were always so excited to showcase the work of daring, young filmmakers. They loved film.
His legacy, also, inspired a world of film watchers.
My mom managed a video store in Anza, CA called Title One Video. Later, she managed a video store called Village Video (I liked that name better, it had better marketing with horse and buggies lugging VHS tapes to the public). I was raised in these places. My mom would bring me to work when I was a small child because in a town that small and with a household income that small, why bother with daycare? If anyone had a problem with looking for videos with a kid behind the counter, they could promptly go fuck themselves.
I remember that my mom didn’t want to think of me as just sitting there watching movies all day and not learning a thing, so she would pop quiz me. “Who directed Beetlejuice?” she would ask me. I would reply with, “Tim Burton.” And what else did he direct? And who starred in both films? Batman and Michael Keaton!
I was quizzed on who directed what to make sure that my time at the video store was at least educational, and I was also potty trained there. Much to my mom’s embarrassment, I would be behind the counter with a too-long shirt hiding my junk but I would be rewarded with skittles if I peed in the toilet and M&M’s if I pooped.
My favorite part about being at the video store during my childhood was when my mom would have me address the questions by other kids my age, and sometimes older. They would ask what was good to watch. This was in the early-to-mid 90s, so I would get to tell other kids that The Little Rascals movie was really fun, or that Tommy Boy was hilarious. My parents let me watch Rated-R movies because they were awesome so sometimes I got to tell older kids that The Shawshank Redemption was a great choice, too.
My dad loved the darker films and got me to appreciate them at a young age. I remember being absolutely terrified by an “X-Files” episode with worms that burrowed into your ear and changed who you were. “Pfft,” my dad scoffed. “The Thing was better.” When I asked what The Thing was he rented me the 80s version with Kurt Russell. I was terrified and in awe. He explained to me how the special effects had probably be done.
And so, my parents created a monster. They created a kid obsessed with movies. I ate them up and spit them out with relish.
Every Sunday my parents would watch “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” and for me, at that age, it was a drag. Why did I want some old fogies telling me what movies I should watch? They don’t like Ninja Turtles 3? Well, fuck them!
I was older, around 12 when Siskel died. He was always a household name in my house and I was very sad when he died, even though I disagreed with him constantly when I was a kid. He always seemed like a nice fellow, though, and I loved the tiffs he got into with Ebert. This was around the time Ebert was highlighting his best films of 1998. I sat in front of the TV as Ebert named off his favorite films of that year and I remember my brother saying, “I bet you his favorite movie is going to be something nobody’s ever heard of.” He was right. His favorite movie was Dark City. It looked lame.
About a year went by and I was still in an obsessive state about film and thinking, “Fuck Ebert! He represents an old dinosaur mode of thinking about movies!” I was laying in my bed on a lazy Sunday and his show came on and he was highlighting the best movies of the 90s, because the decade was coming to a close. I remember him highlighting lots of movies like Fargo (which he and Siskel went apeshit over) and Goodfellas which were obvious choices. But when he went over his selection of Pulp Fiction (also an obvious choice, but still), he highlighted the cheeseburger dialogue–“You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?”–he noted that it was dialogue in the purest manner possible. Dialogue. Two characters talking. It’s obvious now, and obvious to anyone who was an adult when the movie came out, but to me, that was something I’d never considered. Ebert explained that this seemingly tangential dialogue was as important as any heavy monologue in a serious drama. Two hitmen discussing burgers held as much weight as a king in a drama talking about his army of horses?! Holy… shit.
After that, I began checking his archives before I checked out any new movie. I disagreed with him often. God, I still do. He would fixate on one goddamn thing I found to be inconsequential and it’d drive me mad! But when he agreed with me, he would open my mind to an aspect of the movie I never even considered. Or, when he loved a movie I loathed, he would tell me in such eloquent detail why he felt the way that he did and I couldn’t disagree with his logic, even though I disagreed with his consensus.
I watched Dark City many years later, thinking about his recommendation and how lame I thought it was and was blown away by it. His audio commentary is the cheapest film school anyone can afford. Ebert will teach you German Expressionism 101 for $8.
Years later, I often fantasized about what it would be like if I had made a film and if he had reviewed it. How would I feel? What if he hated it?! Would I have the same feeling about the man? I feel like I would, considering the rimming he gave Rob Schneider over Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Rob Schneider was pissed, sure, but offered Ebert a bouquet of flowers when he was sick and urged him to come back to health to give his movies some more bad reviews.
When Ebert lost his ability to talk because of his cancer, Ebert defied all expectations by becoming an even better person and reviewer. He set up a blog to directly communicate with his fans and he did so without ego. He encouraged his fans and haters to come at him with their opinions, tackling his viewpoints head-on. He humorously replied to a commenter who said that nothing ever happened in one of his rarely-penned screenplays, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” He replied with something like, What, not the homicide and plot twist and triple wedding? Nothing happened?
Yolie and I got drunk one night and got to thinking about our dear old hero and registered a name and, totally oblivious to the topic at hand, said something like, “We watched you growing up and we’re such big fans and we love you!” There was, of course, no response.
Ebert won a Webby Award not for his writing, but for his personality, and that speaks a lot for a man who won a goddamn Pulitzer for film criticism.
My parents taught me to watch movies, but Ebert taught me how to watch movies. He taught me that movies like T2 and Aliens were artforms and that Pulp Fiction was a masterpiece of revolutionary filmmaking.
He will be missed. If films are machines that generate empathy, he told us how they work. I anxiously await the release of his documentary.