"My blog became my voice, my outlet, my 'social media' in a way I couldn't have dreamed of. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to."—Roger Ebert, Life Itself (2011)
For two decades, TV viewers became familiar with the voice of Roger Ebert as the co-host and frequent sparring partner of Gene Siskel. In recent years, cancer deprived him in the cruelest way of the physical nature of that voice, leaving him unable to speak, eat, or drink.
But in perhaps the finest period of his life, he refused to be silenced by his dire medical conditions. Astonishingly, he continued to write reviews at a pace that challenge a man half his age, not to mention a memoir, tweets and blog posts. What writers call their "voice"--their unique style and sensibility--strengthened in him, even as his body's deteriorated.
Ebert’s passing a few days ago made me think back on when I first happened across him and Siskel while watching a PBS station in the Midwest around 30 years ago. There was nothing quite like it what was then called Sneak Previews, at least in my experience.
I was familiar enough with film reviewers on the evening news and local newspapers, but I had never seen critics try to educate audiences on the elements that made a film compelling. And it was a show that made no concession to the men and women strong on appearance but short on intelligence who were increasingly taking over the airwaves. However Siskel and Ebert had landed this gig, it was, most assuredly, not through good looks.
Don’t underestimate what they managed to do together. There have been imitators and (following Siskel’s death) replacements, but nobody has managed to equal what they had: the sharp physical contrast between the short, heavyset, bespectacled Ebert and his tall, thin rival at the Chicago Tribune, not to mention contentious conversations that could quickly become more entertaining than what they were reviewing. (Ebert’s frequent response—“Well, Gene, I don’t think we were watching the same movie!”—should be enshrined in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.) It was a hard-won chemistry, as Ebert recalled after his partner's death, by trial and error, after they had learned to throw away their carefully prepared scripts and simply wing it.
In 1990, the satiric Spy Magazine ran a cover story with enlarged blow-ups of the two most famous thumbs in America, along with the waggish headline, “Whose Is Bigger?” The article proceeded to analyze whether Siskel or Ebert wielded more influence on the success of films. The verdict: The thin man, at least partly because he liked fewer films than his on-air partner. In a way, that says something positive about Ebert’s exuberant affection for the medium.
He came by that affection and knowledge partly the way most film buffs (myself included) do—by sheer osmosis, watching film after film that engages (and some that don't)—and partly by some (limited) experience in the industry. It was his dubious job to collaborate with Russ Meyer on the campy exploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). It sure wasn’t Citizen Kane, but at least it gave him an idea of the mechanics of filmmaking and the stresses that even sleaziest practitioners of cinema must endure. And perhaps that gave him a healthy respect for industry professionals, even when he delivered some of his most memorable criticism.
Not that I always agreed with his views. I wondered, for instance, how he could object to the scene in the Neil Simon-penned The Slugger’s Wife in which the baseball player watches stock-still as his towering line drive heads for the fences. He wanted to know: Didn’t the filmmakers know that once a ball is hit, you’re supposed to run right away? Siskel spoke for me and many other viewers when he asked if Roger had watched Reggie Jackson in recent years. I also shook my head in deep anger when Ebert joined with the rest of the critical establishment in hailing the absurdly overhyped Pulp Fiction.
Writing at even the pace my blog requires often leaves me feeling I barely have time for a life. When you write as much under constant deadline for as long as Ebert did—46 years this week, when he got his job as a 24-year-old with the Chicago Sun-Times—the inspiration inevitably flags some days, particularly when you’re averaging more than 200 reviews a year, as Ebert was. Combine that with his continuing TV commitments and I think you can understand why, at points in the ‘90s, I speculated whether he might be overextended. Too many of his reviews, I thought, were reading like plot summaries rather than explanations of what made a particular movie work or not—the reason why I began watching him in the first place. He could inveigh, as he did in this You Tube clip discussion with Siskel, on political correctness as “the fascism of the Nineties,” but he himself could have broken with his pack of fellow critics more.
But in the end, his rage to write sustained his rage to live. Given all his health problems, he could have simply elected to withdraw from most people and from his work. But he wrote at a white-hot intensity, in an attempt to get down on paper everything he ever felt—about his relationship with Siskel, his continuing recovery from alcoholism, his liberalism, his Catholicism, his favorite pieces of literature. He revealed dimensions few would have suspected from the man on the aisle seat.
Where will Ebert eventually rank among film critics? As a sheer writer, he will not generate acolytes the way that Pauline Kael of The New Yorker did, but that’s probably a good thing: Kael’s idiosyncratic voice too often degenerated into cruelty. (For examples, see Robert Redford’s reminiscence of her brutal treatment of him early in his career, in the new issue of Esquire, or Renata Adler’s discussion of how Kael incorrectly berated George Roy Hill for recording outdoor scenes for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a studio.) He might not have had the luxury to dig deeply and at length, as she had on the weekly schedule of The New Yorker, but she would have been hard-pressed to better the Pulitzer Prize he won for his far more frequent pieces. At the same time, he won't be known for seeing the medium in a new way, as James Agee was.
Still, I hope that his publisher is now considering something like A Roger Ebert Reader. It should take in so much across so many years and across so many media—not just the print pieces by this old-fashioned film journalist, but also the segments with Siskel, his tweets, his memoir, and his blog posts. It might go some way to counter the slight note of condescension in Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s summary of him as “the very best kind of middlebrow, an earnest enthusiast who took his work seriously.” It would demonstrate how Ebert’s career—and his long, brave death in public—justified the Virgil phrase that a high-school English and Latin teacher scrawled in my yearbook: Labor omnia vincit.
(The photo shows Evert at the time of the release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls--a dubious film credit that, to his credit, he refused to disown.)