"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Roger Ebert

tn_ebertWell, I know I’m late to this wake, and many people have written more thorough and more personal words about Mr. Ebert than I could. The closest I ever came to meeting him was when a commenter here chose the name “Simulacrum of Roger Ebert” and I wanted so badly to believe it might be him that I decided maybe it was and made a fool of myself. (Don’t worry bud, all is forgiven.) But I want to say something because I really believe I might not be doing what I’m doing with my life if not for Siskel & Ebert. Which might be a positive for my financial future but otherwise would suck.

Ebert had the type of broad attitude towards movies that I try to encourage. Like expected from a film critic before the internet he was big on film history (did a great commentary track on CITIZEN KANE), loved the foreign films and all that. But he was also very open to the lowbrow. He assumed he was speaking to smart people and yet didn’t act like a snob. You would see Gene and Roger get excited about action movies (see below), kid’s movies, whatever. If they loved it they would stand up for it and not be ashamed and that’s when they were at their best. (although it was hilarious when they fought.)

If they thought it wasn’t getting enough attention they would spend extra time on it. They were talking about documentaries on TV, that was new. They famously championed HOOP DREAMS, and so many independent films. I love that Roger was so big on black films. So of course he loved Spike Lee. Back then those guys were bringing attention to movies and movements that would’ve been mostly ignored otherwise. They had power and they used it wisely.

I thought it was great that Ebert fell so hard for DARK CITY. He ended up doing lectures about it and two DVD commentary tracks. Even cooler, he was a huge advocate of the crazy Alex Proyas/Nic Cage collaboration KNOWING. 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 stars from Ebert. Winner: Ebert.

When we talk about critics we tend to say, “I didn’t always agree with him, but…”, but of course, we don’t always agree with anybody. Not even ourselves – sometimes somebody points to one of my old reviews and I read it and think “That’s what I said back then? I remembered liking it.” I know, especially with my tastes, plenty of critics aren’t gonna like the same shit I like. So some of the fun of reading them is to get excited on the occasions when they do. I’ve often referred to Ebert’s positive review of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, for example. He could get vicious with the real dark horror movies, like in his famous panning of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, so it was a great surprise when he appreciated something like REJECTS (or going back earlier LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and could articulate what he respected about it.

Oh shit, i forgot this but the first time I rented EVIL DEAD 2 it was 100% because of the Roger Ebert quote on the box. I didn’t get the first EVIL DEAD back then, thought it was crap, and Ebert loved the sequel to that? I had to rent it to find out why. And I found out why. Good call on that one, Ebert. You youths who saw it first when ARMY OF DARKNESS already existed, you missed out on one of the all time knock your socks off “holy shit, I need to rewind that” endings. But “Siskel & Ebert At the Movies” or whatever was quoted on the VHS cover made sure I got to experience it the right way.

The reason I think Ebert is influential to me is not as much his great writing or his making me watch EVIL DEAD 2 but the fact that I watched that damn show every week I could throughout the ’80s. Like so many people it molded my brain to know the movies that are coming out each week and want to see them and talk about them with people about what I thought about them and why. Not just eat them and shit them out and forget it and go back to work.

I know Ebert complained that he didn’t like the thumbs up idea and how it simplified things. Sure, and a half hour show with commercials and a bunch of movies doesn’t allow much time for thorough discussion. But you watch those episodes and they still manage to get out a few insights for each movie and encourage a thoughtfulness that I prefer to what you usually get in the mainstream today.

Sometimes I start looking into that siskelandebert.org archive and get stuck in a rabbit hole looking shit up. “Hmmm, what did they say about REVENGE OF THE NERDS?” (they loved it). ‘What about HARD TO KILL?” (they were disappointed). For God’s sake don’t look up their review of DIE HARD! Too soon. But they did love ABOVE THE LAW. A couple years ago somebody told me since Ebert liked some of the early Seagal I should send my book to him, maybe he’d read it. I got the address and had the book ready and like a dumb motherfucker I never sent it. Should’ve given it a shot. I see that now.

One last thing I want to say about Mr. Ebert. I remember that a common anti-critic sentiment on the internet used to be “what does he know he wrote beyond the valley of the dolls. ha ha and fat.” But I always thought it was fucking awesome that he wrote it. Haven’t seen it in years but I thought it was a clever, unique movie and even if it hadn’t been it was cool that he lived a life where he ended up writing a Russ Meyer movie as a young man.

It’s sad to see a guy go when he obviously wanted to live so bad, be with his wife more, see more movies, run his film festival, write more books. That illness fucked him up bad and he was like, you’re just taking my jaw? Making it so I can’t talk? That all you got, pussy? Barely let it slow him down. (In fact in some ways it sped him up – I regret to say that I couldn’t follow him on twitter. It was too damn much!) But he lived a great life and left a great body of work and influence and while I’m sad we lost him it makes me happy thinking about the smart and funny things he said over the years and the way he shared his passion for the good shit.

So after we pour one on the curb for him let’s honor Roger Ebert just by continuing to watch movies and write about them and talk about them with each other, look for the good ones and share them. In the below episode he and Gene recommend one that sounds pretty good, something about a cook on a boat?

This entry was posted on Friday, April 5th, 2013 at 1:43 am and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

38 Responses to “Roger Ebert”

  1. Chopper Sullivan

    April 5th, 2013 at 4:25 am

    I saw BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS for the first time last year and it blew my tits off. I love that he was kind of a sleaze, that he liked THE MASK because he wanted to bang Cameron Diaz and he liked JUNO because he wanted to go steady with Ellen Page. Like Vern properly articulated, I liked that he was kind of a weirdo with mainstream respect.

  2. nabroleon Dynamite

    April 5th, 2013 at 5:07 am

    Rest In Power Roger Ebert!!

  3. Remember when he was on THE CRITIC?


    Chopper – reminds me of that SALT review where he describes Jolie’s body and basically you got the impression that Jolie gave him a boner.

  4. As a Brit, my first hand experience of Roger as a critic was limited in any formative sense (we had Barry Norman). But I was always aware he wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, so there was some common ground ( big tilts and redheads). Even so, it’s astounding just how much this man represented unfettered enthusiasm for the broadest of cinematic landscapes. His affection was inclusive even to a geographical outsider such as myself. Critisism as creative and thoughtful entertainment is a relatively new thing as popularist art, such a shame to lose an innovator of it.

  5. One of the better obituaries I read on the guy. Not high on self indulgence like I’ve seen on other sites. Still even though I will respectfully hope he rests in peace I can’t say I was a fan and there was another death in entertainment media yesterday that hit me way way harder than Ebert’s ever did. That was the death of Mr. Carmine Infantino who’s work really did have quite a lasting effect in my life.

    I will give Ebert one thing though. He was the one mainstream white movie critic who had no problem loving low brow black entertainment and admitting to it. Possibly the only writer about movies on his level who completely understood the genius of BOOTY CALL. So credit where credit is due.

  6. yup, Ebert was a class act, he will be sorely missed by me

    it’s also a shame because 70 is not all that old, all things considered, the dude could have easily had a decade or more in him if weren’t for cancer

  7. Roger Ebert didn’t instill in me a deep love for film or film criticism, and I can’t think of a single movie he introduced me to. But he was always the first critic (present company excluded) I went to after I saw a movie, and one of the only critics (present company still excluded) whose reviews I would read regardless of whether or not I ever planned on seeing the movies they were for. He was just a damned good writer who was able to filter in his own personality and world view into a deceptively breezy format. I particularly admired his knack for finding a framing device or some other kind of “in” into whatever piece he was working on. Any writer will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the craft is finding your entry point to any given piece. It;s gotta be kinda like a sneak attack: unexpected but functional, a jumping-off point that orients the reader immediately but isn’t your standard “Blank is a blank about blank starring blank” synopsis type deal. Ebert was like a master escape artist in reverse: There was no seemingly impregnable topic he couldn’t effortlessly slip into with just a few light, conversational icebreakers that end up forming the framework for the whole review. There’s nothing more difficult than making it look easy.

    Like everyone else, I admired the way he used his you-would-think debilitating illness as an impetus to devote himself to his work. That’s some hero shit right there. Most critics are just critics (present company continuing to be excluded) but Ebert’s eternal devotion to the craft of writing made him an artist in his own right.

    It’s just hitting me that I’ve read my last new Ebert review. It’s like a Zen riddle: If a movie comes out and you don’t hear Ebert’s opinion on it, did it really come out? A small but meaningful facet of my relationship to cinema is gone.

  8. If you read his blog with some regularity, then you know how often he tried his hand at the New Yorker caption contest. Well, he finally won. It’s a short article, and worth reading for Ebert fans.


  9. Mr. Majestyk

    You haven’t read your last Ebert review yet, Ebert’s editor Jim Emerson, said that there where a few more reviews left to be published, and that his last review is for To the Wonder (3,5 stars), and will be published when the film gets a release in the US.

  10. I read Ebert’s reviews extensively, just for the wit and intelligence.

    We didn’t lose just a movie reviewer, we lost a fine human being and a humanist.

  11. you’re just taking my jaw? Making it so I can’t talk? That all you got, pussy?

    — weirdly inspiring sentence, Vern. Well played.

  12. On Tuesday of all nights the Casablanca blu-ray was on sale at my local Target, so I picked it up and decided Tuesday was as good as any day to watch Casablanca.

    After the film was finished I scrolled through the special features and there was a commentary track by Roger Ebert. I thought I would do the thing you do with commentary tracks and skip around to some of my favorite scenes. Skip ahead to 2 a.m. and here I am finishing up my second viewing because Roger Ebert’s love of that film was so infectious I wanted to hear everything he had to say.

    Then I get up in the morning, and Roger Ebert is no longer with us. I suppose it was because his voice was so fresh in my head but this news hit me harder than it would have otherwise.

    I’m glad people are giving such huge respect for the man because he deserves it. Siskel & Ebert caught a bad rap because a bunch of hacks knocked off their style and that lead to the “Get a quote on the poster” – Peter Travers style of film reviewing. That wasn’t their fault and I’m glad the world seems to get that.

  13. Great write up, Vern. I loved Ebert. A great writer and critic. Even when he got it wrong, he usually had interesting reasons.

    A few days before he passed, I read that he was planning on writing a screenplay. He even suggested that he might adapt a video game (which, for those who remember his foot in mouth approach to games a few years ago, is a shocker). I would have loved to see what that would have been like.

    Anyway, Ebert. We will miss you. Thumbs down to you passing on.

  14. Like Raffles I’m a Brit, so only got into Ebert’s writing in recent years and have been devouring his reviews (love his enthusiasm for Speed 2!) and watching as many archived At The Movies I can find. A shame he has left us, but the world is better for him having being on it. RIP Rog.

  15. Seriously. That might be the finest sentence you’ve ever written, Vern. I can’t shake it. And I th

  16. Seriously. That might be the finest sentence you’ve ever written, Vern. I can’t shake it. And I think ebert would give it two thumbs up.

  17. I think the thing that really made Ebert special was the rare combination of his technical gifts as a writer and his incorrigible love of cinema. Rarely do both things come so elegantly together; Vern is now one of the few people that description applies to who is still working. Hey Vern, don’t you go anywhere, man.

  18. “Sometimes I start looking into that siskelandebert.org archive and get stuck in a rabbit hole looking shit up.”

    Sounds like siskelandebert.org is for you what outlawvern.com is for us.

  19. The Onion tribute is pretty sweet. Not their first use of that gag tho…


  20. The original Paul

    April 5th, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I’d never seen a complete episode of this before, and the saxophones at the start just cracked me up. Eighties cheese at its very best.

    RIP Mr Ebert. (I say that coming from much the same place as Dirk – I discovered Ebert’s reviews late, as a Brit, then got into them.)

  21. It’s been great seeing the film community share their Ebert memories these past two days. Watching old clips of SISKEL & EBERT has been great. It’s a historic look at the cultural impact of cinema. I forgive Roger for not getting DIE HARD. It’s hard to know sometimes when you’re in the presence of greatness.

    They are definitely responsible for making film criticism something that people were aware of. By the’ 90s I found the “two guys talk about a movie” format tired. As I was getting into extra-curriculars and my early career, I did a public access show where I interviewed people at the local movie theater, getting more opinions into the mix. Then the internet came and that would be irrelevant too. Now the old SISKEL AND EBERT shows are quaint and nostalgic. I think I can definitely appreciate what Vern was saying about the thumbs up/down system and recapping so quickly, and as an ambitious film connoisseur at the time I’d want to go deeper. But now we can go as deep as we want, and I’ve learned more brevity than anything else as a writer myself, and the value of beginning these conversations on the mainstream air was monumental. (How many movie review shows have failed in today’s TV landscape. The Rotten Tomatoes show, that Chris Gore show, didn’t Leonard Maltin try one?)

    They definitely made me aware of films that were not coming out in Annapolis, MD. I had to wait until VHS to see CLERKS. When I got to college it blew my mind that there were theaters showing movies like KIDS, like they talked about on SISKEL AND EBERT.

    I’d say my only beef with Ebert, well, maybe two. I never liked when SISKEL AND EBERT turned into insult comedy. Even as a kid I knew that was belittling and both were capable of more intelligent arguments, but I recall Siskel resorted to that more than Ebert. But Ebert was so proud of his review of NORTH where he said, “I hated hated hated hated hated this movie.” He even named a book after that. Come on, you said hated five times? That’s all you got? You’re better than that.

    Oh, and he blew the twist of THE CRYING GAME before I saw it, but I got over it. I’ve been sorry to see his health decline over the years so I continue to be sorry to hear of his passing. However watching these old clips is making me really, really happy.

  22. I remember watching SISKEL & EBERT back in the 90’s. I wasn’t an avid reader of his stuff, but respected the work he put into it. A few things I did read always stick out at me. When he reviewed APOCALYPSE NOW for it’s 20th anniversary, he talked about being in Calcutta and seeing such extreme poverty and relating it as he only could to the scene where Kurtz talks about “the horror” of what he had seen in war. Another is his remembering of how achingly close John Candy’s character in PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (one of Roger’s favorites, as well as mine) was to John himself.

  23. I can’t say anything wonderful enough about Ebert that others like Vern and Ebert’s closest friends haven’t already said. I am grateful to the man for all he gave to the world in his film reviews, his advocacy of a number of film and non-film issues, and all the rich history and perspective he shared when discussing the “Great” movies, past and present. I admired the relationship he had with Siskel and greatly anticipated Sundays when their show was on the air in my area.

    And he was so so so so so right about North.

  24. Congratulations–in a manner of speaking–on becoming my new favorite living movie critic, Vern. You and Roger are/were the only voices I trust(ed) in modern film criticism. His blend of insight, humor, and biography in his reviews was a masterfully compelling mix that made me want to read about films I had no previous interest in or knowledge of, and many times led me to films (DARK CITY, the UP documentaries, GATES OF HEAVEN) that made for riveting viewing.

    My favorite Roger aphorism was one he referred to as Ebert’s Law, which stated: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about HOW it is about it.” The best critics (present company INcluded) are, I feel, driven by some form of that law: they want to see the HOW–relish and analyze how that how takes the form of good casting, a strong camera eye, a curious plot twist, what have you–and not be bothered too much with the WHAT of it all (e.g. “it’s just another horror/action/romantic comedy/cartoon movie”). Describing that how in an intriguing but not conceited way is a great way to stay curious about movies, and, by extension, life. Thanks for having a good sense of interest in the how, Vern; it’s something we can all learn to cultivate from Ebert, whether we’re writers or just conscious observers of what life has to give us.

    By the way, it’s clearly too soon to implement this now, but if you offered to sell through the Flea Market, at some point in the future, a “Roger Ebert Rock Star” T-Shirt, similar to your Pauline Kael design, I would buy the SHIT out of that thing.

  25. Great article Vern. I am so glad to hear your praise for Roger Ebert, he was my hero and the reason I too write about movies. I love to hear that I am not the only one who used to watch Siskel & Ebert religiously and still seek out the old episodes on the interne.

  26. I was always irritated by Ebert’s print review of Die Hard, where he basically panned the entire movie because he didn’t like the character of Duane Robinson, claiming he was a stupid character (no shit). Then he went on to give Die Hard 2 a rave 3 and 1/2 star review when it had Dennis Franz playing the exact same fucking character.

    This is but one of many examples of why Roger Ebert was inconsistent and dumb.

  27. When asked how can he could defend George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, Ebert answered “I don’t defend it, I praise it.” Roger was the best, no offense Vern, he will be sorely missed.

  28. David- I hear what you’re saying, but I think we often condemn movie critics for exhibiting the same kind of inconsistencies we often do ourselves. For example from reading his Bond reviews it’s clear Ebert went back and forth on whether he preferred the series to be fun, self-aware romps or grittier thrillers with greater aspirations towards serious drama and credibility. And you know what? So do I.

    People always give Ebert shit for giving GARFIELD or COP AND A 1/2 three stars, or for giving BATMAN & ROBIN the same grade as FIGHT CLUB or STRAW DOGS or whatever, but who can honestly say they’ve never enjoyed or tolerated some mediocre kids movie more than a particular critic or fanboy favourite. It reminds me of what RRA said a few years ago that’s we, um, Vernites, will tear apart a recent blockbuster but give credit to STREET FIGHTER because someone does the splits well. Ridiculous, but we all do it

  29. Roger Ebert was easily one of the many factors in my huge love of movies. Since I was born and bred in Chicago, I watched At The Movies on PBS with Siskel and Ebert long before the thumbs up and thumbs down even existed. It’s crazy to me that I watched two very educated white men bicker over the minute details of movies even as a young child. I loved that show because it allowed me to see glimpses of movies I wasn’t allowed to see, but I knew I wanted to and would eventually. When I was old enough to start reading the reviews I knew Siskel wasn’t for me and Ebert was the one I sided with. He was open minded, while Siskel was stuffy in my mind. My thoughts on that were cemented when Siskel hated Evil Dead II and called Bruce Campbell a stiff. I hadn’t even seen the movie yet and had never seen the original, but the way Ebert wrote about it I knew it was the movie for me. I was one of probably a handful of people in the theater when I saw Evil Dead II in the theater at the age of 15. It would be one of many movies that Ebert talked me into seeing without ever knowing he did. His writing style was full of life and it always felt like he was writing from the heart. There were movies I disagreed with him on, Die Hard being one of them, but I must say he always made good points even when he didn’t like a movie. I also feel like he was a great champion for online reviews and one of the biggest champions of debating and movie in general. He will be missed but never forgotten because his, and Siskel’s, influence can be seen on every single site like this.

  30. My admiration for Roger Ebert stems from just one thing he did; He was the first critic to champion my favorite movie, THE WILD BUNCH.

  31. Vern, I think you would appreciate his review of LADY IN THE WATER.

    In particular, he focuses on the fact that Shymalan had a movie critic (played by Bob Balaban) be one of the movie’s villains. It’s one of my favorite reviews of his and in case you’ve never read it, here:


  32. That’s a good one. Good observation about how the evil critic is actually correct in the movie and Shyamalan didn’t even realize it.

  33. Can’t sit here and pretend like I have a unique Ebert story. Like many of my generation, I watched [at odd hours] his tv show in the 90s, engaged & occasionally fascinated by his conversations & arguments with Siskel as they allowed me a glimpse into a kind of proto-internet movie talkback session, somehow infusing me as a mere viewer with their own enthusiasm for “participating” in world cinema releases & in criticism of such.

    Hard to appreciate today the uniqueness of that feeling at the time, and that it could be an ongoing film/art/culture dialogue, between just you & the hosts, spiked with quick weekly conversations on tv, extended, if you were very lucky, by conversations with real life friends, who rarely had the time or inclination to indulge your need to arrive at & properly articulate your own “thumbs up/down” after already spending 2+ hours on the acts of driving to & watching a movie.
    Nowadays any asshole can get online and try to be a version of tv Siskel or tv Ebert or your cinephile friend at the café post-screening, their fraud expressed as a function of their keyboard and accepted as a function of other assholes’ desire for both collective acceptance & semi-anonymity.
    No one looks you in the eye any longer; no one addresses the camera and tells you that Andrew Davis is a great director.

    Could never quite pin what made Ebert such a good writer, but I think the main thing is that he managed to never piss me off. Usually that happens several times with every critic, every writer who publishes so much for me to read; it’s only natural. And I’d expect that, after disagreeing so many times through the years about various films, at least one of Ebert’s “wrong” reviews would have tipped me over into anger or incredulity, but they didn’t. Not once. Evidence of his skill, his evanescent empathy, I guess.

    He was so genial, so clever without often being in-your-face clever, and, well, maybe there’s something to the fact that his politics line up with mine pretty closely. He wasn’t afraid to be an out-&-out liberal on pretty much all the issues. We were simpatico.

    His movie reviews rarely gave me a buzz, but his blog was pretty great. You could tell that reader interaction & talkbacking made him glow, made his clock tick faster, upped the volume of his productivity, and he elevated his writing & the scope of his writing to compete with his own audience’s desire to receive & participate in the best he could offer on a wide range of topics. In the span of one paragraph, he could relate equally to a not-precocious 13 year old girl, a precocious 22 year old guy, a 46 year old misanthrope, and a septuagenarian flower-child burnout, to a scholar or a layman, to a philistine or an elitist. He had no niche and no limits, yet he was a niche writer with mass appeal; he built & continued to reach his audience by skill & honesty, not by lowering himself or by underestimating his readers.

    Also, Mr. Subtlety, 2 stars for THE MASTER and 3.5 stars for TED makes perfect sense to me. You’re wrong; Ebert’s right.

    Incidentally, I tried to listen to this podcast called “The Cinephiliacs,” which seems like it’d interest me, but their “tribute” to the late great Ebert is terrible. A bunch of assholes who don’t realize they’re not bright enough to be the elitists they think they are saying things like, “Well, it was interesting that Ebert admitted that he never ‘got’ Kiarostami” and “David Lynch was a major blind spot for Ebert, until…” and so on. Maybe Kiarostami & Lynch suck, bro. Ebert’s right and you’re wrong. Goddamn, there’s some stupid, groupthinking, self-backpatting motherfuckers out there. Ebert was never one of those, thank goodness.

    You can tell Ebert always did well with relationships, probably rarely suffered long periods without the company of the ladies, and had a happy marriage. He was stimulated by his own intellectual curiosity, but never anxious or overeager or too frustrated with the world; he was laid back. He never devolved into bitter nerd-dom, never retreated into faux-academia in order to justify or cultivate his ego or his position as the #1 in the film-crit game. Plus of course he was a newspaperman, so he was used to cranking out stuff on deadline, staying busy – no time to wallow in masturbatory, self-embittering bullshit like some of his [podcasting] preening professional “peers” with preferences for pointless pontification & feckless fingerpointing.

    Anyway the big thing that’s important for this websight is that Ebert made at least one huge, massive, awesome contribution to the well-being & popularity of BADASS CINEMA. It deserves more notice – he gave Ignatiy Vishnevetsky a huge role, a huge spotlight, a huge opportunity to become a superstar movie critic, and I.V. only went on to become, like, the world’s 2nd or 3rd biggest champion of John Hyams, for example. He constantly big ups the action genre, the vulgar auteurism, the rejecta of “respectable” narrative filmatism, you know, the stuff we here like. And Ebert promoted him from obscure nothingness to prominence, putting I.V.’s tastes on an equal level with the tastes of the most famous critic in the world.

    Vishnevetsky’s legacy is Ebert’s legacy, and it is good that we have I.V. on our team, bringing more eyeballs & ticket sales to the kind of things we like, ensuring that those things will be more successful & prolific in the future. The next time a dtv underground fighting movie spawns a shockingly amazing, fun sequel that some of us put on our obscure Best Of lists, some of the recognition for that possibility should go to I.V. for bringing our genre tastes closer to the mainstream & thus to profitability, and thus some of the recognition should also go to Mr. Roger Ebert. That’s a badass legacy.

  34. The original Paul

    April 11th, 2013 at 4:09 am

    Wow, Mouth. That is a better tribute than most of the “professional” ones that I’ve seen.

  35. Holy shit, that theme song.

  36. Can you imagine a television show with such an elaborate opening sequence these days, let alone one for a show like SISKEL & EBERT?

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