Digital Polyphony

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Roger and Me

Posted on April 5, 2013 at 7:05 PM

Roger and Me


It kind of just appeared one day like a little piece of magic that you stumbled across on some weekend afternoon. Suddenly, there were two guys on my television and they were talking about movies. One was a taller, a lanky fellow, and the other shorter and huskier. I referred to them as Stan and Laurel, for some reason even at age eleven or twelve or whenever this was in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, I was fully aware of Stan and Laurel, Abbot and Costello and other great comedic duos. These two weren't comedians, though, they were movie critics. They still had a rather funny relationship, though.


Before the age of the internet and media streaming and watching things on your cellphone like a chimp with a piece of aluminum foil, the only times anyone really showed movie clips on television was on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's show, two guys who obviously loved film, loved talking about film and loved telling us about their love of film and why we should love it as much as them, even if it was movies they hated. Though I was initially drawn to the show by the notion of watching movie clips of movies that weren't even out yet, seeing clips of movies was rare back then, somehow that evolved as the years went on. After some time, I began to listen to what these two guys were saying, actually take in the points and dissection of their short reviews and conversations, and waited in anticipation of their thumbs or thumbs down.


Thumbs up? That sounded familiar.


I was probably about ten years old, and my family had just entered the 20th Century when our home welcomed a wonderful little device called a Video Cassette Recorder. It was official: Beta was out, VHS was in, and the world of cinema opened for me as we took the leap and bought a state-of-the-art 4-Head VCR. I remember going to a video store shortly after and there on the new release shelves was a VHS copy of Look Who's Talking. At the very top, in big, bold lettering, was "Two Thumbs Up." I didn't know the context and had no idea what it meant, but I remember thinking it might as well be the title of the movie considering how damn big it was. As it turns out, I knew about "Thumbs" well before I actually knew where said "thumbs" hailed from.

Seriously, you couldn't miss it.

I never really thought about film reviews or critics. I mean, I was ten so why would I? The idea of "film reviews" didn't enter in to my world until I stumbled upon the source of all those "Thumbs Up/Downs" I had seen on various rental boxes. And to think it was all just an interest in seeing movie clips the latest movies. From that, though, spawned something. Planted a seed, if you will. I not only wanted to know what these two guys thought, I wanted to go out and start "thinking" for myself - to look at a movie as a craft rather than something I paid six dollars to see or rent. A passion began to develop, and from that point on everything changed.

Starting with that old VCR, I began to dub my own movies off of the television. I wanted to take these movies and watch them again and again. After a while, we got a second VCR, something a little newer and by that time costs of VCRs were low, and I began to rent and copy the rented tape on to a blank one. I began to build a library of my favorite movies I wanted to see again. I enjoyed taking, say, Tim Burton's Batman and rewatching it and wondering how things were done, noting how certain scenes were shot (like the reveal of The Joker) or just going to my favorite parts. I remember, for some odd reason, I constantly re-watched one particular scene in Ghostbusters. It was when they were in the hotel and the maid scares them. They spin, shoot off their proton packs and just DESTROY the entire hallway and the maid's cart. She peeks out behind it and says "the hell you doin'!?" For some reason, I laughed as hard as I ever laughed, and no matter how many times I rewatched it, I still laughed over and over again at just that one little part.

Some people just watch a movie and then they're done with it. I went in a different direction: I wasn't done with anything yet. I blame Siskel and Ebert.


Things became worse in high school. A lot worse. Now I was working at a video store. I didn't want to work anywhere else, I wanted to work in a video store and I wanted to be surrounded by movies that I could watch anytime. I would take movies home every weekend, and every Tuesday was like Christmas as we got in the new movies and were setting them out. I loved my job because I loved movies, and only now do I see that the reason I love movies was because Siskel and Ebert made it so. Their television show was still on by this time, I still watched it even as it apepared on different networks making for a bit of a cat-and-mouse game that always made watching syndicated shows difficult. The show made me interested in movies, made me love them...but I think it was Roger Ebert himself that made me really want to go further than even that. He showed that you can love movies, express that love of movies and enjoy doing it with little hassle, ego or self-absorption - attributes that are often lost with critics of anything.

He never considered himself the end-all, be-all, often referring and deferring to his fellow critics, journalists and colleagues' work as well - those he knew and those that came before him. One of the best books I own, and that you should own too, is "Roger Ebert's Book of Film" where he compiled various short essays about particular subjects to cover the history of cinema written by other people, from biographers to other critics to scholars to the horses mouth itself. In his introduction, he lays it all out very simply:


"I determined at the oust not to make any rules, not to try for some sort of 'survey' suitable for a classroom. I was simply looking for good writing about the movies. With five or six exceptions, every selection comes from a book I found on my own shelves. I put in what I enjoyed and admired."

He wasn't just appreciative of movies, he was appreciative of movie history and the notion of it as an art. He was also humbly aware of his own place, knowing he was good at his own craft though he always, consistently deffered to the fact that he was still just a critic of people that were more creative than him. In, what I would consider the definitive profile of Roger Ebert, Chris Jones' Esquare Article "The Essential Man," Jones writes one of the most touching few sentences I've ever read of anyone as his former colleage Gene Siskel was brough up:


"All these years later, the top half of Ebert’s face still registers sadness when Siskel’s name comes up. His eyes well up behind his glasses, and for the first time, they overwhelm his smile. He begins to type into his computer, slowly, deliberately. He presses the button and the speakers light up. “I’ve never said this before,” the voice says, “but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.”


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Still classic.


I suppose there was something unassuming about how he presented himself. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed more like an uncle than a movie critic. A really smart uncle who really loved movies and would sit down and make you hear what he had to say about it, whether you liked it or not and whether he liked it or not. There weren't a lot of "nots" in my case, and even if there was something I disagreed with Ebert about, whether on his show or in his written reviews, the man always backed up his case.


Ebert often showed respect to those he might otherwise disagree with and willingness to listen to them. He was, what I liked to call, a film conversationalist which is probably attributable to him being a film lover first, a film critic second; less about giving statements and more about discussing the "why" someone likes or dislikes a film and growing a discussion out from that. That was the basis of his entire relationship with Siskel: even when they disagreed, they explored that disagreement. I think they both welcomed it, if anything to have a little bit of fun because, in the end, they are just movies and it's fun to talk about movies. It's fun to talk about things you're passionate about and even more fun when you share that passion with someone that doesn't fully agree with your opinion of them.

Reading his reviews, he's even that much more in depth as to the "why" and even more adept to presenting his understanding of film. He never calls you an "idiot" if you disagree with him, he just stated his case and if you agreed, great, if not, that's fine too. He's a critic that just put it out there and made a case, good or bad, and did so the way most critics really should. He showed restraint when needed, but would get passionate at the right moments.


He wasn't just a critic, though. As I said, the man loved movies. His commentary track on Citizen Kane is still one of legend and shows the man was also a film scholar and historian on top of a lover of it all. He knew his stuff. When he began to write his blog, it became that much more apparent as he seemingly, almost instinctually, could hand out film knowledge like someone talking about the weather. He began the Great Movie List as well: a bi-weekly feature of movies he felt were great and he would write about them. They weren't reviews, they were celebrations. Some were obvious choices, such as The Godfather or Nosferatu, but he showed variety and an understanding that some films are great in their own way by putting movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or My Neighbor Totoro on there.

Ebert was also one of the earliest champions of Studio Ghibli and the man that introduced me to their brilliance, Grave of the Fireflies being a personal favorite of his:

"'Grave of the Fireflies' is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to 'Schindler's List"'and says, 'It is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen.'" - From Ebert's Great Movies essay. He wrote from the heart more than anything, putting personal emotion and a human angle to his approach on film. Also note how he defers to another reviewer who had a better quote, his openess to his colleagues was his greatest strength.

Those are movies that probably wouldn't make some list of "Great, important films" that some magazine or film scholar would put together - but they're still GREAT FILMS. I feel he lived and worked by his own love of empathy, which he noted is essential, that is what made him approach film in a way of openness and willingness to go "on that journey."  He didn't trumpet cynicism, in fact he disliked it and really disliked how social media seemed to flaunt it like a badge That openness and empathy, I think, was the essential quality of the man's life and work. It's what allowed us to invite him in to our homes, and what made us want to listen to what he had to say.

Though he disliked how social media might have been used in some cases, he still used it greatly himself. Not too many critics open the door to allow you interact with them - to have a chat about his latest review or some news article he might post. Ebert did, through Facebook, Twitter and his own blog. As the years went on and he could no longer speak, technology helped keep his voice as loud as ever.

Actually, maybe some other critics did. Truth is, do you know of any? Did you care as much? With Ebert, I think we wanted to interact with him.



I think that's what I loved most about Ebert. He was inclusive and open to a lot of things. He had his lines in the sand at times, sure (excessively violent movies he was never big on, for example, and sometimes he would be brutally honest such as his tweets regarding Ryan Dunn) but that was just the man. Everybody has that, and truth is, he was far more open to hearing and seeing and accepting what was out there than most critics were and are. Sure, he was opinionated, but he seemed to always share his opinion rather than force it upon you most of the time - something that is lost in today's generation of movie bloggers and egocentric writing styles.


That doesn't mean he was "easy" on movies. No, one read of his incredibly hilarious book series that collected his "bad movie reviews" is what writing reviews and commentary on bad cinema is all about. If you haven't read any of those collections, then do yourself a favor and pick one up somewhere. It's some of the best cinema-based comedy you'll ever touch, and probably a good lesson on how to constructive critique a bad movie while still being funny in the process.

Yes, funny. I've always liked that about Ebert, he was witty and clever. His natural style of speaking and writing was just so damn inviting that when he made a funny remark, I found myself laughing out loud well before "LOL" became a hastag. His lack of pretension was what really sold him, and thanks to that he didn't just make us listen to his opinion, but he sought out to help us understand his opinion - which, to me, made his opinion all the more valuable and his voice all that more important and the fact both are now absent from our world all the more saddening.


"There is no need to pity me," he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. "Look how happy I am." - Excerpt from Esquire



I still carry all that passion that Siskel and Ebert, especially Ebert which is why I'm writing this, with me. It's like a burden, in a way. There's only so many hours in a day, I probably have more movies to see than I do years left on this earth, but the passion that Ebert put in to his love of film has transcended the man himself and was put out in to the world for impressionable, potential movie lovers like myself to pick up and do something with. That's why I write, you see. I have all this love of film (and other things, but I consider this primarily a film blog) and I needed some way to express it. I wonder if that's why film critics become critics in the first place. They love it so much, they have to release that somehow and express it to others. I know in Ebert's case that's true.

I wish I had met the man, even just in passing. If anything, just to thank him. I wouldn't have to say what exactly, he'd probably know, but just a "thank you," shake his hand, and that would have been enough. I would have just loved to have had a brief moment to express my appreciation of him towards him as much as he expressed his appreciation of film towards me. I sometimes feel that, perhaps, he wasn't fully aware of how much impact he had on a lot of people. Even when there was discussion on giving him an honorary Oscar for his contributions to film the past few years or so, through reading his blog and his articles and even his tweets and facebook, it's as though he was a bit unaware of it. He was too busy sharing his love of movies to probably notice.

He's gone now. A lot of great people are gone, but this one hurt a bit more. We welcomed Roger in to our homes, he and Gene, and they talked movies with us. I didn't have anyone else to really talk about movie with when growing up, yet here are these two guys I set aside every weekend for to just listen to. I needed a few days to kind of put it all in order: where to begin to direct my thoughts? Write just a bio? Write about his importance to film criticism? There was a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of that ground would be covered by better writers than myself over the next few weeks. No, I was thinking about it too much. Turns out I just had to follow Ebert's own advice: "Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you."

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