Roger Ebert made a big impression on my life, as he seemingly did with everyone who cared about movies over the past few decades. He was the person who first made me aware of what film criticism was. That would have been at some point in the early-to-mid-1980s when, as a kid, I started watching the popular At the Movies show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Later on, in the pre-internet days of the early-1990s, I read and wore out my copy of his “Video Companion.” While there were other critics who would end up exerting a stronger influence on me as a teacher and writer, I still always read and admired Ebert over the years. Just last semester I played the classic At the Movies episode entitled “Women in Danger” in its entirety in order to illustrate to a class what the “slasher movie” subgenre is.
I think Ebert’s greatest contribution to film criticism was the way he proved it could be both intelligent and popular at the same time. While many reviewers lamentably borrowed the basic “thumbs up/thumbs down” conceit — trademarked by Siskel and Ebert — in order to serve as mere “see this/don’t see that” consumer guides, Ebert’s reviews themselves were always insightful. And he commendably used his fame to champion film history — as in his “Great Movies” series — as well as little-known contemporary films that needed more exposure. For instance, he reviewed, in 2010, Chicago Heights, a locally shot/self-distributed indie made on a budget of $1,000 that played for just one week at the Siskel Center. In an age when movie reviews are being systematically replaced in the media with “celebrity news” (as Werner Herzog put it yesterday), it is doubtful that any film critic in the future will have the kind of wide-ranging impact that Ebert did.
The only contact I had with Roger Ebert came last year. We had been “facebook friends” for some time when I saw that he posted an article about the time he interviewed Charles Bukowski on the set of Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-penned movie Barfly in 1987. This reminded me of something I had been wondering about for years: in Bukowski’s highly entertaining 1989 novel Hollywood, a lightly fictionalized account of the making of Barfly, Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski describes being interviewed by an Ebert stand-in named “Rick Talbot.” Chinaski asks Talbot what he disliked the most about “Kirby Hudson” (read Gene Siskel), the co-host of his movie review show. Talbot’s response was: “His finger. It’s when he points his finger.” For some reason, I always thought this passage was uproariously funny. So I asked Ebert if “Talbot” had indeed said this about “Hudson” in real life, and he was kind enough to respond. His reply: “Michael: In a word, yes.”
Here’s Ebert in a cameo as himself in a 1995 episode of the animated series The Critic. The duet he sings with Siskel at the end is great: