Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Balcony Is Closed

“If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis… Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of Casablanca is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.” ~ Roger Ebert

"Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo makes a living prostituting himself. How much he charges I'm not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie. Deuce Bigalow is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes.... Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."  ~ Roger Ebert

Two vastly different films (and this is about the only time you'll see those side by side), but one memorable film critic. Roger Ebert, who rates as the best film critic there ever was, has passed away, after a years long struggle with cancer that robbed him of his ability to speak and took part of his jaw... but which never took away his sharp mind or his love of a good movie. The long time critic for the Chicago Sun-Times was just as comfortable on television, co-hosting movie reviews for years on end first with his long time friend and colleague Gene Siskel, until Siskel's death in 1999, and later with Richard Roeper.

He seemed so familiar to us, reading his work or seeing him on television down through the years that it seemed natural just to think of him as Roger. He brought a common touch to his work, mixed with a writer's gift of always finding just the right words, a dash of humour, and a joy for the experience of watching movies. As much pleasure as he could take in a good movie, he seemed to relish the chance to skewer a bad film in a review, developing a talent for zingers that cut down movie bombs when they showed themselves.

Of Valentine's Day, he told us, "I think it's more of a first date movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date." About the train wreck that was Battlefield Earth, he noted it was "like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It's not merely bad; it's unpleasant in a hostile way."  Of the 1998 remake of Godzilla (in which he and Siskel had been subjected to thinly veiled insults by two lookalike characters), he remarked that "going to see Godzilla in the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter's Basilica. It's a rebuke to the faith that the building represents... It was the festival's closing film, coming at the end like the horses in a parade, perhaps for the same reason." And in regards to Transformers Revenge Of The Fallen, he wrote that "if you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination." He was, in short, a master at skewering awful films.

Ebert started out in the business in the sixties, writing for the Sun-Times. Aside from work as a critic, he was a master at interviews and at essays, and even won the Pulitzer, a rare feat for a critic. That same year, he moved into television, regularly sparring with his crosstown colleague Siskel in the first of many shows to come, the two talking about movies, giving their thoughts on the latest releases. There were times they'd agree, giving thumbs up to something they liked, or raking a bad film over the coals. Other times they saw a film differently, and the two would get to arguing over it, wondering if they had seen the same film. The natural bantering and chemistry between the two friends drew audiences, who enjoyed their wit and their disagreements. They became the go-to critics in the field.

Siskel's death hit Ebert hard; he later said that Gene had been the closest he'd ever have to a brother. After awhile, he settled in with a new partner. Ebert and Roeper had some of the same bantering going on, though their time working together wouldn't be nearly as long as with Siskel. Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, and the disease soon cost him his distinctive voice, and disfigured his face after surgeries. He kept on with the reviews though, both in the newspapers and at his online site, always writing, always taking in movies. His wife Chaz had a lot to do, I expect, with keeping him going. Reading any introductions from the books that followed that diagnosis, and you'll see that Roger gives her all the credit for helping him to continue moving forward. And he kept his hand in the show behind the scenes, as Roeper continued on with guest co-hosts... at least until the production company pulled the plug on both Ebert and Roeper.

I remember reading Roger's books, compiling reviews, essays, and more, starting as a teen. I remember watching he and Gene bantering and bickering over the latest release. These were two men who clearly loved what they did for a living... even if that meant taking in awful movies at times. They loved movies, and they made us love movies all the more because of that. Roger's reviews were often more entertaining than the movies themselves (especially bad movies), and had a streak of humor and a careful craftmanship in their writing. He never lost those abilities, never lost that keen mind, still there pretty much to the end. His last post confirmed that the cancer that had taken much of his energy away years ago had returned, but left us with the thought that movies could even transcend him past the illness.

Rest in peace, Roger. You showed us not just that we could trust your judgment, but just how infectious the love of a good film can be. You kept us not only informed, but entertained. It was next to impossible not to like you. I saw movies I wouldn't have otherwise sought out because of you, and even picked up things as a writer through reading your work.

Thanks for the memories. And thumbs up.


  1. I used to love watching Siskel and Ebert together--and later, Ebert and Roeper. I didn't always agree with them, but I always enjoyed their reviews. Even when they were attacking a film they were so entertaining about it (I'm thinking "Battlefield Earth" here!) it was fun to watch.

    Collin suggested in tribute to Mr. Ebert, a moment of thumbs-up to say goodbye and thanks for all the years he gave us. He'll be missed.

  2. His wit and good sense has been sorely missed on television and has now disappeared from the written word. RIP

  3. William, this is a great tribute! Ebert was indeed very witty and had a good eye for films. The world has lost a great man! And is so inspirational how he carried on until the end, still writing reviews and informing us. May he rest in peace.

  4. Two thumbs up to a stunning career!

  5. This was very nice, Sir Wills.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  6. I wondered if you would post on your blog about Roger Ebert passing.
    I also enjoyed watching Siskel and Ebert and later Roper.
    Must admit I didn't always agree but who cared that what made viewing his show fun.

    Sometimes when I really want to see a film I will go before reading the reviews. Pass or fail on my own thoughts. After all I think I am the only woman in America who disliked Titanic.

    cheers, parsnip

  7. @Norma: and even if I disagreed, they always made a good case for their side of things.

    @Mari: he'll be deeply missed.

    @Lena: there'll never be another one like him.

    @Karla: thumbs way up!

    @Shelly: thank you!

    @Parsnip: I'm sure there are other women who disliked Titanic. As a guy, I have more than a few issues with it...

  8. Great tribute, William!

    And Parsnip, you are certainly not the only woman who disliked Titanic!

  9. What a poignant, loving tribute to one of the greats! Whomever he paired with, I love Ebert. It didn't matter if I didn't always agree with him, it was how Ebert made his point that was, in many cases, more interesting than the movie he critiqued. I'm sure St. Peter opened the pearly gates with two thumbs up.

  10. Nice tribute & very well written!

  11. Fear not Parsnip...there are now three of us!
    Jane x

  12. Brilliant tribute, Mr. Ebert would have approved and given it a definite 5 out of 5! (did he ever give top scores?)

  13. A very nice and fitting tribute, William. Thanks for this post and all information.

  14. @Cheryl: thank you!

    @Kittie: I wonder if he knew how much of a teacher he could be...

    @Cynthia: thanks!

    @Jane and Chris: so Leonardo doesn't hold sway over every woman! Good!

    @Grace: yes he did, though he didn't like the star system...

    @Nas: you're welcome!

  15. So sad. I remember doing impressions of Siskel and Ebert when I was young.

  16. I grew up on Siskel & Ebert's reviews on TV! I must say I think I owe my love of movies to them, and then sadly to just Ebert. It's hard to believe the balcony is truly closed now. A wonderful tribute, William! Thank you and I'm sure Ebert would've enjoyed it.

  17. Great post. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert. Ebert was quite the critic. They were both very entertaining.

  18. I always watched "Siskel and Ebert" and I always agreed with Roger Ebert. Sorry to hear he died he will be missed!

  19. A beautiful tribute, William. Based on your interest in reviewing entertainment I imagine this might have hit you particularly hard.

  20. Had to hit the follow-up button. Sorry.

  21. @Kelly: now that I'd like to see!

    @Lulu: thank you!

    @Krisztina: they certainly were.

    @Deb: he definitely will.

    @Christine: I consider him an influence. And there's a follow-up button?


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