Friday, April 5, 2013

Ebert's Influence On Me



The best way for a Roger Ebert fan as young as I am (22 years old) to begin a remembrance of the man is to recall the time in my life when I first found out who he was.



Most kids in elementary school are not familiar with the concept of film critics, but for me, I think, it must've been a discovery I made in the late 90's, when I was looking around the shelves of a Schnucks video rental store and began noticing the caption "'Two Thumbs Up - Way Up!' - Siskel and Ebert" on the front covers of certain VHS titles in the store's family section. I actually remember feeling a bit irritated, because usually this caption appeared on the front covers of films I never managed to finish (like The Education of Little Tree), or on the front covers of films that I wouldn't see until several years later, but assumed I would dislike at the time (like Simon Birch). When are they going to give 'Two Thumbs Up' to a film I actually *like*? I wondered. I finally had to ask my parents who in the hell Siskel & Ebert were, and why their endorsements mattered at all.

"They're movie critics. Gene Siskel died, though."

I think this must've been around 1999-2000, when I was in 3rd grade, considering that this was indeed a year after Siskel passed away. Sometime afterwards I remember when October Sky came out on VHS, and on the back cover (or at least, I think it was the back cover... I can't find a photo of it for some reason), the caption "'Thumbs Up!' - Roger Ebert & The Movies" appeared.

Hmm, I thought. Guess it really is just this Ebert guy from now on.

The years passed. I went through the remainders of elementary school and middle school, still seeing Ebert's "Thumbs Up!" endorsements on the occasional movie cover, along with the endorsements of other critics I assumed, wrongly, were just as important (Peter Travers, Jeffrey Lyons, Joel Siegel, etc). I heard some riff-raff about him having a new TV partner, but I didn't really care. I wasn't reading critics just yet. The only opinions about movies that mattered to me, at this time in my childhood, were my own. I stuck only to what I knew, what with the limited resources I had: a) that I loved movies; b) that if a theatrical trailer interested me enough, I would go to just about any movie; and c) that filmmakers like George Lucas, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg were the best in the world. It wasn't long before I would gradually lose interest in just about all of those filmmakers -- Spielberg, of course, being the exception. It happened around the time when I began choosing my movie titles more carefully and expanding my knowledge of movies.

And that started happening in Spring 2004, when I finally made it a habit to begin watching Ebert & Roeper every Sunday.



Oh, it was amazing. I was learning something new every weekend. Learning about not just what makes a great movie, but a great movie debate. I was staying on top of the new titles coming out every month. This went on for 2 straight years. It was hands-down my favorite show. Although I learned very quickly that Ebert was the better of the two (he was the more literate cinephile, his arguments were generally more convincing), I still believed that Roeper had good chemistry with him. Off the top of my head, the only time where I truly feel Roeper had a stronger argument than Ebert was in their review of War of the Worlds, but even in that review I admired Ebert's response to Roeper's complaint of, "Would you honestly recommend The Honeymooners and The Longest Yard over this movie?" that it was an apples and oranges situation, and that he and Roeper's "thumbs" -- in all honesty -- reduced the format of movie debating itself. As Ebert made it clear, there is more to a movie review than simply saying that "this is better than that, this is worth seeing and this is not," and so on.



Beginning on Christmas 2004, during my final year of middle school, I began asking for Ebert's movie yearbooks as gifts. They were not only fascinating reads that I memorized by the mile, but they encouraged me to read his older reviews on suntimes.com. I instantly became obsessed with them. In particular, I was obsessed with studying the specifics of the style in which Ebert wrote; I longed desperately to figure out the magic behind what made his sentences, his way with words, flow so well. And this I would continue to do, extensively, all throughout high school.

I was not so satisfied by the fact that the suntimes.com website only archived Ebert's reviews from the late 80's to the present day. He wrote reviews *before* then, didn't he? I wondered. When Ebert finally launched his own website, RogerEbert.com, an archive of every review he had ever written, I was overjoyed.

But as much as I loved Ebert's reviews of each new movie released every waking week of the year, what I loved more were his Great Movies pieces. It is because of Ebert that I quickly became a diehard fan of the old masters: Kubrick, Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Ford, Hawks, Capra, Huston, Kurosawa, Ozu, the list goes on. Certain obscure classics that most people wouldn't know about or, at the very least, care to see, I managed to check out in high school because of his recommendations in those Great Movies pieces. Read this paragraph of his Great Movies piece on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:

Now I approach it again after 27 years, and find it extraordinary, a true and heartfelt work by a great director who endured despite, or perhaps because of, the demons that haunted him. Courage usually feels good in the movies, but it comes in many moods, and here it feels bad but necessary, giving us a hero who is heartbreakingly human--a little man determined to accomplish his mission in memory of a woman he loved, and in truth to his own defiant code.

Look at how easy and lovely to read that is. It does not feel like it was written by some highbrow film academic. You don't have to strain your senses to figure out what Ebert is saying there. Nor do you feel insulted by his simplicity like you would reading the review of somebody as boring and template-reliant as, say, James Berardinelli. It's simple, and it's smart.

Also, it is right. About the movie, I mean. It really *is* that fucking good of a movie, and the critics in '74 who hated it... well, they were all wrong. Ebert understood it from the very beginning. Peckinpah would have been proud.



Then, Ebert was hospitalized in mid-2006, and it felt to me like the world was ending. Ebert himself, as a result, missed reviewing a lot of essential titles in 2006 & 2007. I remember thinking, "Well, at least he got to review the new Spielberg (Munich) before checking in. But he didn't get to review the new De Palma (The Black Dahlia)!" OH, HORRORS!!!!!

Ebert & Roeper continued, but with Roeper now discussing the films with guest-reviewers like Jay Leno, Michael Phillips, A.O. Scott, Lisa Schwarzbaum and (shudders) John Couger Mellencamp. Sometimes the debates were interesting, but overall it didn't make for great television. The electricity of the debates with Ebert was gone.

Of the movie-reviewing shows that followed, I was even less impressed. The two Bens were the absolute nadir. Scott & Phillips were an improvement, but dull. But it was Ebert's own show with Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky that I was disappointed with the most. I sensed that Vishnevetsky had an impressive knowledge of old cinema, but was not a very charismatic TV personality. Lemire was appallingly incompetent at both.



So, what do you do when the present shows are a letdown? Consult the past for comfort, that's what I did. And a youngster like me eventually realized that as much as I knew about Ebert & Roeper, I knew very little about Siskel & Ebert. I went back and watched their reviews. And suddenly I felt like I had been behind the times. *This* was great television. *This* is how you do great TV debating.

But that's all for another post. This one is supposed to be about Ebert. I will get right to the important part.



In summer 2008, I visited Chicago, having not been there since a family reunion years before. Now that I actually knew about what was *in* Chicago, I resolved to at least visit the place where Ebert worked. And so I did. I thought this^^ would be the closest I would ever get to Ebert. I was wrong.

In May 2009, the month that I graduated from high school, I found that I had nothing to do. Nothing but spend the next two years at a community college and get some kind of job to help pay my way into film school. Wanting to help pass the time, I noticed that Ebert had begun blogging a lot. And so, I began attempting to get his attention. The first time I ever did was in this blog post, when I asked him (at literally the very end of the blog post) about his thoughts on Coppola's Tetro, and he let me know what he thought of it. There were other comments I left on some of his other blog posts, but I still need to locate them.



Then, in October 2010, I decided to write a blog piece on a film Ebert had reviewed in 1972: Robert Mulligan's cult horror classic The Other. Anticipating that the film was going to be on Turner Classic Movies later that month, I wanted to blog about the film in order to recommend it to friends of mine. I am assuming that after the review caught the attention of Matt Zoller Seitz on Facebook, it got the attention of Ebert.

But I didn't know about any of this until I saw this post on my Facebook from my friend Craig Simpson:

"Ebert liked your review, Zanzie. Props!"

Which, in turn, led me to discover this...



...and this.



And before I knew it, Ebert's review of The Other, which originally was a review without a photo to illustrate it, was suddenly headlined by the same photo I had used to headline my own piece on the film:



Wow.

I was 19 when Ebert read my piece on The Other. Since then, I've gone back and re-edited that piece several times to ensure that it truly is "the best review you're likely to find" about the movie, as Ebert declared it, so, well... if there are times when it now reads like it was written by somebody older than 19, that's because it kind of is. But the structure of the piece is still exactly the way it was when I wrote it at 19. And Ebert's praise encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, and keep that passion I had about movies (while still maintaining some kind of outside life, with a job and school) all the way up to my entrance in film school the following year.

But here is primarily what got me so excited about all of this. It wasn't just that my work had suddenly been read and praised by the writer whom I still consider to be the greatest film critic of all time. It was that I had written the piece merely to promote a horror film (by a sorely underrated director) that very little people knew about. Because Ebert knew about the film, and apparently liked what I had to say about it, he ensured that the film was promoted. I like to think more people are now aware of the film because of those two tweets he created in October 2010. Never mind the brief popularity my blog enjoyed -- besides, I rarely post on Icebox Movies anymore. Just that a film I loved got more attention through my piece on it getting so much attention. That was pretty incredible.

And two months later, in December 2010, when Ryan Kelly and I hosted our Spielberg Blogathon, Jim Emerson's piece on Close Encounters & E.T. was briefly featured on the front page of Ebert's website, yet another instance of my efforts to promote a certain film/filmmaker being supported thanks to Ebert (even if this time, it was done by his website's editor, rather than himself. Still, Ebert gets credit for the website existing, so there you go!).



When Ebert's death was announced yesterday, a lot of thoughts ran through my head, many of them selfish realizations. For example, the realization that he had lived to praise my work as a critic but would not live to a review a film I made, in case I ever one day had a successful career as a filmmaker. Much like Wes Anderson fantasized about Pauline Kael reviewing one of his films, so did I long for the day when Ebert would not only see a film of mine, but write a damned well-written review describing what was good or horrifically awful about it. I also got upset about other really trivial things; again, as it was in 2006, he had been conscious long enough to review the new Spielberg (Lincoln) but not the new De Palma (Passion). Or that now, we can never expect him to revisit films like Clockwork Orange that he trashed upon release but kept hinting that he would go back, reconsider and write about some more. No: that Great Movies piece on Clockwork Orange has to be written by somebody else now.

Aside from some of the posthumous goodies he left us behind that we'll be getting in the next month -- most excitingly, his review of To the Wonder -- this is it. That's all. There will be no more Ebert reviews. Worse, I simply cannot think of another working film critic whose writing excites me nearly as much. And considering that the concept of working film criticism is getting less and less popular these days, what with critics getting laid off (i.e. fired) and all, I'm not so sure there will ever be another published critic who writes as passionately and as emotionally as he did.

Whine, whine, whine. Jim Emerson is correct: I did not truly know the man, and should not act as though I did. Those two precious tweets notwithstanding, he would not have remembered me. My loss, though arguably personal, doesn't measure to what Chaz and others in his family suffered.



But, to paraphrase what I said about Ebert on Facebook the day before he passed away -- when he announced his "leave of presence" -- I owe a great deal of who I am to him. I am a better writer because of him, and my outlook on all cinema in general is better because of him. From this point on, I will try to be a better filmmaker because of him, too. And I pity the filmmaker who doesn't.