Thursday, April 4, 2013

Giving 'Two Thumbs Up' To A Beloved Film Critic

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It is a truly sad day for cinephiles everywhere like myself as Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun Times for forty-six years, has died. As a child, I grew up hearing my parents and virtually every other adult say, "Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up," when deciding what movie to see. I remember my old VHS tapes having that phrase above the title of a given movie that these critics admired. At the time, I didn't know who they were, only that if they liked a movie it was a good bet that I would enjoy it as well.

If I'm being fully honest I don't recall ever having watched a full episode of Siskel & Ebert, only after Gene Siskel's death in 1999 did I start watching the show's later version, Ebert & Roeper. Over the course of many years I became more familiar with not only the show but Roger himself. Each week I couldn't wait to read his reviews and the more I read, the more I appreciated him and what he did for film criticism. He's not the only famous movie critic, but he and Gene managed to somehow mainstream film critics in a way that had never been done before. Other critics, new and old alike, credit these men for championing smaller independent films that audiences may not have otherwise known about.

When Roger's health declined, Richard Roeper began bringing on a variety of guest co-hosts, two of them being A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune. After a while, Phillips became the unofficial permanent co-host of the show, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the debates between he and Roeper each week.

When ABC decided that show needed to appeal to younger audiences, Roeper and Phillips were replaced by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, a decision that caused ABC to once again reevaluate after a year. It was Roger who then hand picked Scott and Phillips to host the show, which by this point was renamed simply At The Movies. When Scott and Phillips came on I discovered what so many before me had loved about the Siskel and Ebert years, as they brought back the spirit of the original show. Both men were newspaper critics, and both men brought their own unique approach to writing and discussing film. Scott has a background in literature, often comparing movies to great novels, and Phillips always paid a keen attention to a particular film's score, highlighting the importance of music in film.

Roger recognized their talents from their past guest hosting duties and allowed these two men to keep the show alive while also bringing a fresh perspective to it. From what I've read and understand, Roger was the type of person who enjoyed reading other critics as much as he loved writing his own reviews. It's because of him that I learned the value of film criticism and not only its importance in modern society, but its relevance as well.

He brought back a new version of the show after its cancellation on ABC, entitled Ebert Presents At The Movies and just when I thought there couldn't be any other critics that I would love as much as Scott and Phillips, Roger brought on Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of These two could not have been more drastically different from Scott and Phillips, and yet they were just as entertaining and taught me as much as the critics before them, if not more. They had many disagreements, just like Siskel and Ebert did, but had a great admiration and respect for one another. There was a great chemistry between them that was infectious every time I watched the show.

Roger also brought in a variety of guest critics to discuss different topics associated with film on Ebert Presents. These were people that Roger himself admired, and thus were able to showcase their talents on his show because he recognized so many different voices when it came to writing about film. He opened a new world for me. It's gotten to the point that I'm reading so many reviews and listening to so many podcasts about film (all of which feature one or more of these guest critics) that my head may just explode. I couldn't be happier about that.

Just a day ago, Roger announced his "leave of presence" from writing but made mention of plans to bring back At The Movies again through a Kickstarter campaign. I hope it still happens, as his show continues to inspire new generations of film critics like myself even after it's ended. No amount of writing will ever fully express my gratitude toward this man. He gave me hope when everyone around me told me that writing about movies wasn't important, a show that opened up a world of different writers that I continue to admire and actively read, and he was the person responsible for compelling me to write about film.

Rest In Peace, Roger. And thank you for inspiring me.

1 comment:

  1. We're in the same boat with when we came on board...Ebert and Roeper were what I knew, but the internet will now allow us to take a look back at the work of a man who made film criticism an art all its own.

    Ebert was never pretentious like some critics.
    He gave some of my favorite comedies, considered too low brow by some, wonderful reviews.
    "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" for example.

    He knew a good film when he saw one and he told it like it was.

    He was a good man, a brilliant man, and he will be missed.