I was saddened Thursday to learn of the death of revered film critic and journalist Roger Ebert.
Ebert, the longtime Chicago Sun-Times critic and columnist who also was one half of the famed TV duo Siskel and Ebert, battled cancer for many years, specifically cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland. He was 70.
Ebert was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who authored 17 books (including one about, of all things, rice cookers), and he and late TV partner Gene Siskel (who also died of cancer in 1999) made serious film criticism part of the national conversation. Their "thumbs up, thumbs down" method of criticism was, for years, perhaps the most commonly accepted metric of cinematic quality in many American households and workplaces.
"Hey Joe, is that new Clint Eastwood movie any good?" one might ask.
"Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up," would come the reply.
It's safe to say millions and millions of box office dollars swung one way or the other based on the film reviews of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
While the pair undoubtedly became household names nationally because of their TV show (which went by several names through the years, but was perhaps most popularly known as "At the Movies"), Siskel and Ebert initially were known for their work in newspapers. Siskel was with the Chicago Tribune, Ebert with the rival Sun-Times.
The pair were said to have shared a warm friendship through the years, though they often seemed standoffish with each other on television as they argued about movies.
During the Siskel and Ebert heyday, many film fans often chose a side. You were either Siskel guy or an Ebert guy.
As you might imagine, I was an Ebert guy. He was a pudgy, argumentative columnist who wore glasses, worked at an underdog paper and loved movies. How could I not be an Ebert guy?
THROUGHOUT HIS YEARS ON TV and as he battled cancer - a disease that claimed his lower jaw, his ability to speak and, eventually, his life - Ebert continued to review films for the Sun-Times at a prolific clip.
It's interesting that, for decades, much of the moviegoing population at-large sought Ebert's opinion on films in the most simplistic of terms: Did he give the movie a thumb up or a thumb down?
However, if you ever made a habit of reading his written reviews and essays, you likely came to regard Ebert as a thoughtful, elegant examiner of film.
Take for instance his 2001 essay about director Spike Lee's 1989 stunner "Do the Right Thing," a film that offers a look at simmering racial tensions on one boiling summer day in Brooklyn. In looking back at the film, Ebert's essay had, in part, the following to say:"In 'Do the Right Thing,' the subject is not simply a race riot, but the tragic dynamic of racism, racial tension, and miscommunication, seen in microcosm. The film is a virtuoso act of creation, a movie at once realistic and symbolic, lighthearted and tragic, funny and savage; one of the reasons we recoil at the end is that we thought, somehow, the people of this neighborhood, this street, whom we had come to know, would not be touched by the violence in the air all around them."
My goodness. That's not just pointing a thumb up or down. Ebert was making words dance there, seeing through to the smoldering core of the film.
But, he didn't reserve that level of writing just for high-minded fare like "Do the Right Thing." From his January 1977 review of "Star Wars" (several months before George Lucas' space opera actually was released and became a monster hit):
"Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.
"'Star Wars' works like that."
Did I always agree with his reviews? Of course not. For instance, I love the old 1980s horror flicks, the "Friday the 13th" series, "Nightmare on Elm Street," all of that stuff.
Meanwhile, Ebert, with a few exceptions (the original "Halloween," for example), HATED slasher flicks. During a 1984 TV segment, he famously referred to "Friday the 13th Part IV" as "an immoral and reprehensible piece of trash."
In a 1981 review in the Sun-Times, he described "Friday the 13th Part II" thusly:
"This movie is a cross between the Mad Slasher and Dead Teenager genres; about two dozen movies a year feature a mad killer going berserk, and they're all about as bad as this one."
Why don't you tell us how you really feel, Roger?
We live in an era in which anyone with a phone and Twitter account can fancy themselves a critic. As soon as the credits start to roll, they can fire off their opinion, albeit in 140 characters or less.
With that said, I believe there is still a place for thoughtful, measured criticism and commentary, not just in regard to movies, but also politics, culture, sports, religion and more. Even if you disagreed with Siskel or Ebert, their reviews would always make you think.
They get two thumbs up from me. Rest in peace.
Trainor is the senior staff writer at the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-5650; email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IJCHRISTRAINOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.