When I discovered Siskel and Ebert, I was about as obsessed with movies as a teenage boy can be, and I quickly became obsessed with the show, which consisted of two critics who each wrote movie reviews for the biggest newspapers in Chicago — Siskel for the Chicago Tribune and Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times — reviewing and often debating the merits of four or five new releases each week. Of course, I hadn’t seen a number of the movies they reviewed, but it was thrilling to see them review the movies I had seen — usually the blockbusters that played everywhere — so that I could compare my reactions to theirs, learning things about the movies I did not know in the process.
I never — and I do mean NEVER — missed an episode of the show. Siskel and Ebert would soon become the most famous movie critics in America, but most people just knew of them dimly as “the fat one and the skinny one,” as well as the famous thumbs up or thumbs down trademark. This was a constant source of irritation for me because I saw them as demigods, human like me but also godlike in their knowledge of and insights into movies, and their power to make or break a movie by decreeing it as “good” or “bad.” How could people not see them as I did, or take them as seriously?
Looking back on that time, I believe what drew me to the show was that it was the first time I had “met” anyone who was as enthusiastic about movies as I was. In a way, Siskel and Ebert were like friends I could “converse” with about the movies. If I agreed with their verdict on a movie, I felt vindicated and a little smarter than I had before. If I did not, I would sometimes feel upset, sometimes defensive, sometimes confused. If they disagreed with each other, I would take sides, usually, but not always, with Ebert.
Of course, I knew they weren’t talking directly to me, but that is how it felt, and I certainly talked back to them. I am sure my mother thought I was nuts, yelling at two guys on television about some silly movie. But to me nothing about it was silly — these opinions about movies were of the utmost importance. I had found two people who not only validated my love affair with movies, but who taught me that it was perfectly fine to make judgments on whether the movie I had just seen was good, bad, or somewhere in between. For the first time in my life, I became aware of developing a personal aesthetic.
By the time I got to college, I found a few other fellow travelers with whom I could see and talk about the movies, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. But I would never forsake Siskel and Ebert. I continued to watch the show obsessively until Siskel died of cancer in 1999, and then continued to watch when Ebert moved on with the sadly inferior Richard Roeper in the wake of Siskel’s death.
I began reading Ebert’s reviews in the early 1980s, and I bought several collections of his reviews over the next several years until the advent of the Internet and his website made owning the books superfluous — all I needed to do was go to his website to find every review he had ever written, literally thousands of movie reviews just a mouse click or two away. I found his writing to be even better than his commentary on the show. It was deeper, obviously, and more fully developed, more humane and insightful, probably because he had more time and space to develop it.
For 35 years, I have watched, read, and depended on Roger Ebert. Every Friday for as long as I can remember, the first thing I do in the morning after I make coffee is check in to see what kind of reviews Ebert has given the week’s new releases. I relied on him to let us know if the latest Batman sequel was worth seeing, or if there was some new independent movie I needed to track down.
For me, Ebert was the best, most reliable critic in America. He had a vast intellect, but he was also unpretentious. He rated movies on their own terms, without any agenda. Some people felt his positive reviews of some mainstream movies meant that he could not be taken seriously as a critic, but he was just as apt to eviscerate a mainstream movie as he was to praise it. He judged it for what it was, and for what it was trying to be. He did not use the same criteria to judge the latest Sandra Bullock romantic comedy as he would to judge “Apocalypse Now” or a Fellini movie. If the movie worked on its own terms, he would reward it accordingly. If it did not, he would pan it. He saw no reason that a person could not enjoy both “Citizen Kane” and “The Hangover.”
In 2006, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer and had most of his jaw removed. He could no longer speak or even eat, and the television show ended. After a period of time off, he began writing reviews again right up until just a few weeks ago, when he posted an announcement on his website that the cancer had returned and he would be taking a “leave of presence” to get radiation treatment and then work on revamping his website, among other plans for the future. Less than 48 hours later, he was dead.
It is still hard for me to believe that there will be no more Roger Ebert reviews to savor on Friday mornings. I still cannot accept that Ebert will not be around to expound on the next Scorsese movie, or to predict next year’s Oscar winners, or to warn us not to waste our money on the latest recycled turkey from the Hollywood formula machine. It will be quite some time before I see a movie without wondering if Ebert also thought it was a triumph, or a disappointment, rushing back home to compare notes with him by studying his review.
I never got to meet Roger Ebert in person, but when it comes to loving movies, he’s my oldest friend. I’ll miss our conversations more than I can possibly say.