I’ll See You at the Movies
Article by Paul Preston
“I’ll see you at the movies.”
– Roger Ebert’s final written words
How do I even deal with the words “Film Critic Roger Ebert Dead at 70”?
I’ve had a weekly check-in with Roger Ebert my entire life.
The first real movie I remember seeing in the movie theater was “Star Wars”. Yes, I’m that guy. My dad said, “How’s about we see this new sci-fi movie that’s opening up at the Oneonta Theatre”. I shrugged and said, “OK”. Needless to say, I was HOOKED. Movies quickly became the most amazing way to experience a story – larger than life, with a crowd, all-encompassing – and my parents still have cassette tapes of me reading books when was some crazy-early age. I still get to the occasional book here and there, but I tear through movies ferociously.
The year after I saw “Star Wars”, Gene Siskel joined Roger Ebert on a PBS show called “Sneak Previews” (you want the theme song? ‘Cause I’ll sing it for you if you want it). Now if you’ve ever visited the quaint village of Oneonta, NY, where I grew up, you quickly get a sense of the small-town-i-ness of it. It’s not out in the sticks, but it’s not a booming metropolis. It’s a great place to grow up, then leave. It’s also not a hot bed for rabid movie conversation.
But these guys on TV, these guys from The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times (my eight-year-old self wrote these down, ‘cause he’d only heard of The Daily Star and The New York Times), these guys could TALK. And man, did I love to listen.
A simple observation one could make about Siskel & Ebert is that they are well-versed in the art of film, but make the conversation about it palatable for everyone. In fact, they wouldn’t use phrases like “art of film” or “palatable”, but you know they’d know what those phrases mean. How they made film talk accessible is an easy observation, but the value of that accomplishment is often understated. With the onslaught of online opinions, blogs, videos and reviews about movies available today, you forget what an accomplishment it was two have a show about two guys talking about movies FIND A NATIONAL AUDIENCE! No small feat. One that will never, ever happen again.
And they didn’t exclude any films. They’d review “The Evil Dead” and “Chariots of Fire”, and you could listen to the reviews of both and be entertained, regardless of whether you wanted to see both movies. What a great compliment they were to one another, too. Gene, always the snootier, more demanding critic, and Roger, right down to looks, falling in line more with the average guy’s opinion, if the average guy knew a TON about movies.
So there I was in my living room, every week, checking in with Roger on what’s coming out in theaters, keeping my crazy passion for movies alive and wondering why some of the movies he LOVED weren’t playing in small-time Oneonta. And after “Sneak Previews” came “At the Movies” (you want the theme song? ‘Cause I’ll sing it for you if you want it). If there were awards for such a thing, “At the Movies” would win Most Recorded Show On My VCR. This was great, I never had to miss the show. And not that Siskel & Ebert were big spoilers, but I would often tape the show and watch the reviews after I’ve seen the movies. If you’re a Movie Guy…you did this.
“At the Movies” was on for about seventeen years, until Siskel’s death. In that time, Roger agreed with me (I love putting it that way) on nine “Best of the Year” films:
1983: “The Right Stuff”
1988: “Mississippi Burning”
1989: “Do the Right Thing”
1992: “Malcolm X”
1993: “Schindler’s List”
Roger was my man! I mean, he only agreed with Gene on the year’s best film ten times their whole career! But some of the best shows did away with the review format and just let Gene and Roger go off. Memorable episodes for me include full half-hours devoted to “Do the Right Thing” and “Pulp Fiction” and the filmmaking choices that made those films great, plus their hard fight for the A rating, that would replace the pointless NC-17, now just a kiss of death reserved for softcore on TV.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always line up. I mean, he didn’t like “Raising Arizona”. “RAISING ARIZONA”. But he can tell you, thoroughly, why.
Roger Ebert impressed me in so many ways as a journalist, critic and writer. He held to his beliefs about a movie, and could defend them to anyone. Not only would Gene put him to the test, but on talk shows and interviews, Ebert would have to describe why he felt the way he did about this or that film, and he’d have extensive examples and thoughtful critique to offer up. And he saw A LOT of films. I saw “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” last week and I can barely tell you what happened in that messy, noisy film, let alone try and keep details and specifics at hand for seven or eight other films I might have seen that week.
But mostly, I loved getting lost in Roger’s bottomless, passionate love of the movies.
When computers first came online in the mid-‘90s, there was Roger, making himself available to a new way for me to check in with him. I remember he had a CompuServe e-mail account. And I sent him mail. Oh, yes, I sent him mail. All I have as a reminder are his responses, which are hilarious because I have no idea what I was bothering him about:
– “I appreciate the input.”
No doubt I was telling him some great ideas about how to make Siskel & Ebert more awesomer.
– “Thanks, Paul. Your form of paying tribute was very appropriate!”
This was in response to Gene’s passing. What did I do? What kind of wackiness did I commit to honor Gene? Did I see “Babe: Pig in the City”? Curious…
– “Re the tube: Looked to me like he sort of struck the edge and coasted to a slower velocity. But your friend may be right.”
Oh dear lord! This is in response to a specific scene…in…SOME MOVIE! I was “talking” movies with Roger Ebert!
When Ebert lost his voice to cancer a few years ago, he took to the internet and despite winning a Pulitzer prize in 1975, his blog produced some of the best writing of his life. This was great, ‘cause I could continue to check in with him. Ebert wisely never shied away from whatever the new technology was, as he Tweeted and blogged about all the new films. But this format, and maybe his glimpse at his mortality, got him all fired up about EVERYTHING. His blog became a firestorm of social comment as well, including rants about politics, religion, gun control and more. As a raging liberal, but more so as an artist, I’ve always gotten behind Ebert’s stance against censorship. He hated the ratings board (I can say the same) and always believed that no topic is off limits, what is to be judged is what an artist does with the topic.
Since I went to see “Star Wars” with my dad, whether I was in college or living in L.A., separated by an entire nation’s worth of roads, there have been weeks where I haven’t talked to my dad. Or my mom. And months go by without seeing them. But on TV or reaching through the computer via a blog or his weekly newsletter, I’ve always kept that weekly check-in with Roger Ebert where he’d talk movies and invite me to play along. And I was all ears.
Thank you, Roger.