Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: Ebert's Presence, aka Roger and Me [Update: R.I.P. Roger]

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Updated April 4, 2013: One day after I posted this article, The Chicago Sun-Times announced that Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70.

Click below to view video: roger_ebert_rip.jpg

Roger Ebert announced late last night what many had feared - his so-called "hip surgery" that resulted in an unusual respite from his torrent of tweets proved to be in fact a recurrence of cancer, the same disease that helped ravage his jaw and left him unable to speak.

Typically, I write over 200 reviews a year for the Sun-Times that are carried by Universal Press Syndicate in some 200 newspapers. Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now, which is why I'm taking what I like to call "a leave of presence."

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.


For those of us of a particular age, Ebert was the quintessential film critic. Sure, there were newspaper guys and other people on TV, but with his partner Siskel, while growing up he was probably the only critic I could name. Years before hearing about the Cahiers crew, or Sarris, or even Kael, there were these two guys on TV wagging their thumbs about.

Naturally, I liked the round one with glasses.

Before the Internet-as-we-know-it, in the magical time known as the 1990s, I began to take more seriously some of the films they chatted about between the blockbusters. It was revelatory when Gene and Roger sat down to talk about the "Tarantino Generation" - in this full sequence, these two articulated something that had been broiling in me, a feeling that QT had somehow ignited a new way of dealing with cinema.

Now, while it didn't quite work out that way, it did lead me to think even more critically about movies. I'd soon find myself reading Ebert's reviews in full, and quickly realized the divide between his role as a TV critic (needing to say something pithy, often over-the-top) and his highly personal, yet often quite nuanced think pieces that would serve as his reviews.

When I started going to TIFF as an accredited critic in 1997, I'd see Ebert wandering the hallway. We'd chat briefly, and joke that he'd never talk about what he thought of a film after a screening ("It's what I get paid for!").

At around the same time, I was working on my Master's Thesis, concentrating on the the epistemological foundation of film criticism, drawing on the works of Noel Carrol and David Bordwell. Heady stuff, to be sure, and not exactly something that tends to come up during talk of The Host. I chose to breakdown a full review by Ebert for one of the chapters, looking at his take on Saving Private Ryan.

As a thesis is technically a published work, I needed to have his permission to include it as part of what I was to defend. I managed to track down his email address somehow (Yahoo search? BBS posting?), and wrote him to his Compuserve account. He was gracious about it, and even encouraging, typing "Great, send me whatever you write!"

Realizing that a Master's degree in Philosophy wasn't going to take the world by storm, I nonetheless was heartened by this throw away comment. As part of defending, we had to put up posters advertising the fact, so that, technically, any member of the faculty or student body could come to challenge my "findings".

Naturally, I chose a slightly cheeky title, and included the amazing poster quote from Mr. Ebert.

gorber_thesis.jpgAlas, when I finally finished, I did write him to see if he wanted a PDF of the work I'd spent a year or so on. He politely declined, saying he had "lots to read". Understandable, of course. Still, I took it that his first reaction was to be encouraging, and only upon reflection did he (correctly) conclude that reading the intellectual ramblings of some grad student wasn't quite how he should be spending his time - there were films to watch!

I'd see him again over the years at TIFF, always making an effort to say hi to him and his devoted wife Chaz. Even after he had lost his voice, we'd still bump into one another, I'd shake his hand, and he'd give a thumbs up. I highly doubt he'd have any memory of who the hell I was, but it at least made me feel better for knowing the guy.

As I wrote about in another post on my own site, a few years back Roger was doing a Twitter thing at TIFF, asking virtual questions (his Mac speaking the words) to a series of high profile Tweeters including Rainn Wilson. I'd just seen Mike Leigh's Another Year, and was buzzing from the experience. I told him how much I loved it, and Roger did his "happy dance", one of the ways he communicates non-verbally, to share in my enthusiasm.

I reminded him of how much he'd helped me years back, and he gave me a thumbs up and patted me on the shoulder. He then motioned to a woman who was taking pictures, and pointed at her to shoot a shot of the two of us.

Grabbing my hand, he pulled me into frame, the way the best directors do. The shot was captured, me looking bleary eyed and disheveled mid-fest, him staring directly in to the lens like a pro.
roger_and_me.jpg
There will be those that point to Ebert as being symptomatic of the "blog" culture of film writing, a "dumbing down" of the art of criticism. I'd say the opposite in the case, between his Great Movies lists, his festival, and even his collection of Film Duds, he's helped influenced generations of writers to take this stuff seriously, to probe cinema at its deepest levels, and to open our eyes to the possibility of the medium.

I agree with Ebert's review conclusions 40% of the time, but I learn from them 100% of the time. His turns of phrase, and his ability to stay original and relevant after literally tens of thousands of similarly constructed reviews is both humbling and inspiring.

There will be plenty written about the man when he finally goes. He's made it clear that there's still plenty for him to do, from his new endeavours to keeping up with the slew of reviews he does every year. Still, I figured in my own way I'd celebrate the man while he's still around to maybe read it, to thank him on behalf of many that find his writing often inspiring, sometimes confounding, but always something worth reckoning.

Roger, get better. For as long as some of us will be watching movies, it's the light of your work that will help illuminate them.

Plus, I cannot believe you gave the atrocious The Impossible four stars, and yet totally hated on Reign of Fire. Ridiculous, sir, ridiculous.


Around the Internet:
  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    This is a sad news indeed. You are absolutely right, he was a voice of cinema all the way to France - where I'm from. Thank you for this article and for your piece on TV - and if I may say so about you, the succession is assured...

  • mightyjoeyoung

    "One day after I posted this article, The Chicago Sun-Times announced that Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. "

    Whoa.....are you the most unlucky guy on the planet, Mr Gorber...?

    Nice tribute, and it it became a nice obituary for the man and his, I guess legacy.

    "There will be plenty written about the man when he finally goes."
    For those of us who are not that familiar about him(remember now, that in Sweden he wasn´t that famous, even though lots of filmfans know who he is) or his works is going to be nice to see what will materialize.
    RIP Roger Ebert, thanks Mr Gorber.

  • Nah, was lucky enough to say much of this stuff to the guy's face over the years. Still, thanks as always for the note.

  • mightyjoeyoung

    Well, at least he heard you say it.

  • arturo

    was always curious in what Ebert would say about certain movies that i hated....

  • I'd habitually write a review, then go check to see what he had to say. It rarely had to do whether we agreed, as above, but I'd always see how where I'm always fighting against repetition or rote turns of phrases, he'd have some elegant way of restating the same old plot point.

    The fact that he could still find something important to say about even the most dreary of cinematic experiences was always a wonder to me, and level of competence I'll spend the rest of my time writing about films hoping to approach, yet likely not getting particularly close.

  • hutch

    Master's degree in Philosophy?!?! Ha ha. Will that give you the skills to 'sway' me from my loathing of 'Quadrophenia' (album & film)?! Ha Ha. We MUST meet sometime (but if we do, don't ever mention a 'Tarantino Generation' to me. ICK!)

    Nice article though: agreed with Ebert 40% of the time but learned from him 100%of the time. Nicely played. I love that clip of Ebert flexing on that prick at the 'Better Luck Tomorrow' screening. Classic.

  • I fucking LOVE Quadrophenia. :)

  • stwsr

    I prefer Gene Siskel myself.

  • Kurt

    It was just reported by the SUNTIMES that EBERT just passed on today.

  • i wouldn't miss him.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    Even though I didn't like the guy's reviews I still can see how much of an impact this could cause.

  • Chuck

    Show some respect.

  • I'm not speaking for Frankie, or his sentiments, but would point out this comment came before he passed... Not sure that helps, but there you are...

  • mstradford

    Very nice piece, Jason. I hope Roger gets to read it.

  • It had been my hope as well. That photo was taken, as I said above, after I had expressed these sentiments to him directly. I feel pleased that I had the chance to do so.

    Whatever you thought of the guy, or his work, take this as another reminder that life is short, and that it doesn't hurt to express to those that helped shape your life the contribution that they have had.

  • hutch

    Word. I was cheezin and gushing when I met Ryoo Seung-wan.

  • Have you ever had the chance to meet Boardwell, Jason? Our paths have crossed a few times - the biggest being a time when we were both invited to visit the set of the Johnnie To segment of Triangle and we sat and chatted for about an hour with Simon Yam - and he's every bit as gracious, approachable and genuine as you describe your encounters with Roger. An absolute prime human being.

  • I haven't, actually. It's weird - he was even here last TIFF, doing the DIAL M presentation, and I didn't make it to that. One day, here's hoping...

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