Roger Ebert: The Life & Death of a Chicago Journalist

Jack note: I originally published this piece on my ChicagoNow media blog “Eye on Chi” on April 4, 2013, the day that one of my heroes, Roger Ebert, passed away at age 70. In honor of the 10th anniversary of Roger’s passing, and because the Tribune took ChicagoNow offline, I am republishing it here.

Roger Ebert died a day after declaring that the return of his cancer would finally allow him to meet a life goal: only reviewing movies he wanted to see. As a former film reviewer (though in a way, no one is ever a “former” film reviewer), that declaration made me smile. What steered me away from film review after college was the responsibility of reviewing films like The Glass House and Pokemon 3, that hell-bound realization that — unlike my normal habits — I could not simply abandon the theatre mid-reel and reclaim an hour of my life the way I do now whenever a movie fails to grip me. (I’m looking at you, Slumdog Millionaire.)

So the idea that this great writer would now be free to pursue films at his own pace and ignore anything he did not wish to watch was a big thumbs up. The man had long ago earned that right. A hearty kudos on his way…

And yet, boy, who wants to live in a world where Ebert only reviews good movies? Not I. What made Ebert great was, among many other things, his insistence to give films the reviews they deserved. For The Village, that meant imagining time moving backwards until he was no longer in the theatre. For The Specialist, it was about wondering how in the world one would hire a woman to record the audio warning for a home-system self-destroying bomb. For North, it meant knowing the precise number of times to use the word “hate.” (The answer? 5.) For Armageddon, that meant declaring the film the world’s “first 150- minute trailer” and later noting that there was more Academy Award-nominated screenwriting talent in the cast (Ben Affleck & Billy Bob Thornton) than in the writer’s room.

And for Four Christmases, it meant simply penning a spoof of whatever pitch meeting might have taken place to create the movie, a review he ended abruptly with an ode to Chico Marx.

In other words, I’m glad it took him until his last 24 hours to finally give up on reviewing bad movies.

But hot damn, had he died April 4, 2014, the final year of his life would have been spent writing some of the most thoughtful, insightful, passionate, and touching reviews he’d ever written, not to mention any other essays that would have cropped up about life, death, and illness. For while he gave bad films the reviews they deserved, he did so for great films too in his Great Movies series, returning to classics long after the idea of “four stars” or “two thumbs up” had lost their relevance.

So we got a fresh look at pictures like Do The Right Thing, Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, Fargo, Annie Hall, and of course his favorite: Casablanca. In the approximate words of the closing credits of Frankenstein, “A good film review is worth repeating.”

Ebert was a master film reviewer. Ultimately, that is his legacy. But he was also a dedicated journalist, newspaperman, and — perhaps surprisingly — a trailblazer in the possibilities of “new media.”

As a journalist, yes, he flubbed quotes in his reviews, attributing a certain line of dialogue to the wrong character enough times for even his most loyal followers to notice. But that’s a hazard of the business. More important was his gift for explaining how a film made him feel. As he stated in the 90s:

“A movie review… should give some notion to the reader what the movie is about. […] If you play fair with your reader, you can give a movie a bad review, and they’ll still be able to read that review and know that they would like to go see that movie.”

As a newspaperman, he defended and upheld the value of the daily paper, a task he took rather personally in his searing, caustic, passionate “see ya later” essay to his then-departing “colleague” Jay Mariotti. He celebrated newspapers and the people who made them, never more beautifully than in this blog post in 2009 titled “The best damn job in the whole damn world.”

But as we look to the future, (a future Ebert wrote about two days ago with joy & wonder), let’s not forget that Ebert — the consummate old-school, newspaperman — wholly embraced the internet and all the ways it could expand a writer’s world. He and Gene Siskel were pioneers of televised film criticism, and later, Ebert forged ahead with blogging, tweeting, and facebooking, finding ways to personalize each new outlet so that it would enhance his work and his persona rather than detracting from them.

I met Ebert only once, back in the fall of 2011 when he was signing copies of his memoir Life Itself at the Barnes & Noble in Old Orchard. I wanted to convince him to trade emails with me for my Chicago journalism People With Passion series, but more than that, I simply wanted to see him in person, to tell him what his work meant to me. I did. What was amazing was the contrast between this physical being I interacted with and the mind & writer with which I was so used to engaging. Journalism is not “dying” — quite the contrary: the possibilities of journalism in the 21st century are endless. The field is expanding, growing more exciting by the day, so long as people realize the new gifts rather than focusing on what is “gone.”

Ebert was that way to his dying breath, and I have a feeling the title of his final blog post (also the content of his final tweet) will have a greater legacy than it would have if it had just been his final newspaper column. When it came down to it, Roger Ebert and the internet was the start of a beautiful friendship.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: