Roger Ebert: Looking forward until the end

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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This undated file photo originally released by Disney-ABC Domestic Television, shows movie critics Roger Ebert (right) and Gene Siskel. The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that its film critic Roger Ebert died on Thursday. He was 70. Ebert and Siskel, who died in 1999, trademarked the "two thumbs up" phrase. (AP Photo/Disney-ABC Domestic Television)
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There are two things to remember about Roger Ebert. One is that he was, for a very long time, the most important film critic in America, based in Chicago but read and seen nationwide. The second is that, even as he battled cancer, he never stopped looking ahead.

Just days before his death on Thursday at the age of 70, Ebert regretfully conceded that his latest round of illness would require him to cut back on the movie reviewing he had done hundreds of times a year for almost five decades. It recalled the passing of the great sports columnist Red Smith, who days before his own death had written about the need to cut back his own workload.

But Ebert’s concession to the burden of his illness came with the promise that he would keep going, just with a focus on other activities.

“At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you,” he wrote. “It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

He even envisioned reviving, once again, At the Movies, the film-review show which he had once co-hosted and more recently presented with other critics doing most of the on-air work. (Ebert still contributed words to the show — words that, because he could no longer talk, were spoken by Bill Kurtis, but ones that contained the combination of passion, history, insight and, yes, a personal voice that had long marked Ebert’s work.)

His eye always on the possibilities of changing technology — Ebert was a successful blogger and website overseer — he thought he could get At the Movies going again through Kickstarter.

This was a continuation of the Ebert we have seen for more than a decade, who in turn was a continuation of the man who always had something to say, or a story to tell, or a celebrity to profile, and who found a way to get all those ideas down on paper — or, later, a website.

Of course, much of what he wrote about was movies, with the joy of someone who believed in the endless possibilities of film and the anger of someone disappointed by what has actually made it to the screen.

Sometimes he would feel both ways about the same movie. Ebert said Top Gun was “hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless.”

While his written work was often so impressive that he was the first movie reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, his importance to movies stemmed from his having a TV pulpit, notably with his competitor and friend Gene Siskel, who died in 1999.

Others sat opposite Ebert over the years, and there had been movie reviewers on TV before Siskel and Ebert. But in combination and often in disagreement they made special work of the sort of arguments about movies that had long been taking place in dorm rooms and bars among the people who had come of age with the movies of the ’60s and ’70s. In short, people who believed movies were worth fighting about.

While it generally appeared Ebert was a far superior debater than Siskel, he was not immune to critical missteps. He once dismissed the then-acclaimed TV series Hill Street Blues based on a single episode — before an audience of TV critics no less — and in the ensuing brouhaha slammed TV generally.

“The best movies are so much better than any television that has ever been done that it frankly isn’t a contest,” he said. Of course, TV was doing horrible things to the movies he loved: Ebert railed against colorizing black-and-white ones and converting widescreen images to fit the old TV screen.

But Ebert, and Siskel, were often heard by the people making and distributing movies, as they championed their favorites and declared less accomplished movies dogs. And to this day, when I read an Ebert review, I may nod in agreement or want to argue with him. But I respond to the voice and the logic, and want to join in the conversation Ebert was always having with readers and viewers — even reaching out directly to other, less-known writers when he felt the need.

That, of course, is done. But Ebert leaves us with two lessons: that movies can and should be glorious, and that your current troubles should never keep you from looking past them.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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