Thank you David Bates for this beautifully written tribute to Roger, and for giving me permission to republish here at his website.
David is a self-professed "newspaper guy-turned online arts writer" whose work can be found at Medium and the Oregon Arts & Culture News. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidBWriter. His article, "Remembering Roger Ebert," was originally published on June 6th, 2021, at Medium.—Chaz Ebert
DAVID BATES: A TRIBUTE TO ROGER EBERT
I’ve been thinking about Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who passed away in 2013. Settling into my still-early fifties inspires reflection on influences, and his go back to the late 1970s, when U.S. cinema was turning the corner from the occasionally thoughtful and subversive to basically the genesis of what we have now: spectacle and artifice.
Ebert and my love and appreciation for film are so inextricably bound up that I cannot think about one without the other. When great actor passes away — a Robert Mitchum or a Paul Newman — we remember them and their movies. When we recall Ebert, we think of the movies.
As a kid, I watched Ebert (and Siskel) before they were famous, back when WTTW’s "Sneak Previews" was picked up by PBS. More often than not, they reviewed films I was too young to see (even "I Spit On Your Grave," which they annihilated) but I was still enthralled by the discussions. What I came away with from those arguments was a perspective that remains part of who I am today: Cinema as not simply a pleasant diversion, but an art form worthy of serious consideration, one we should think and talk about, even if the talking leads to arguing.
The appeal of Ebert was the comfortable cohabitation of the Geek with the Intellectual. Here is a man whose list of “Great Movies” on his website includes "Star Wars" (the first one), "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" and "Goldfinger." But one also find "Cries and Whispers", "La Dolce Vita" and "Shoah". I remember when Ebert thrust his famous thumb up for "Raiders of the Lost Ark", but I also remember that not long after, he and his famous sparring partner devoted a show to exploring how the summer blockbuster juggernaut was dumbing films down, creating a cinema not for adults who flocked to more serious fare during the 1970s, but for their kids who were treated to the spectacle of Harrison Ford cracking a whip or Roy Scheider blowing up a shark with an oxygen tank.
Perhaps more than any single individual, Ebert’s enthusiasm for films inspired me to go beyond blockbusters in search of more intelligent (and, in hindsight, less reactionary) fare. Understand: To be a teenager during the golden age of Spielberg and George Lucas, when theaters were showing films like "Top Gun", "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Back to the Future" was to experience films as a carnival ride — and, unfortunately, to learn that’s what they were supposed to be. But watching Siskel and Ebert, I understood that those popcorn movies were only part of a cinematic universe that was much vaster.
So I sought out the masters who had, I would learn later, inspired Spielberg and Lucas, auteurs like Kurosawa and David Lean. One summer during high school, I watched something like 50 or 60 films on television, all on my local PBS station. The only one I really remember was Dick Bogard’s "The Servant".
In college, I took classes in film studies — “Blacks in Film,” “Vietnam on Film,” and saw amazing stuff that I never would have heard of otherwise. I went to foreign films, where other seeds were planted: I saw Lina Wertmuller’s "Seven Beauties" and was enthralled by the sheer audacity of it. I saw "La Dolce Vita" and was mostly bored by it. Years later, I watched it again (a horrible, cropped VHS copy) and realized that something was there, even if it didn’t completely speak to me. Then I saw it with my wife on our honeymoon in Vancouver, B.C. at a late show where the theater was packed, and it finally opened itself up to me. I got it. I am almost afraid to return to the film, because now I — a semi-retired newspaper journalist — am older than Marcello Mastroianni was when he made it.
I worked my way through Ebert’s “Great Movies” list, and I bought his books. I sought out films that he called attention to in his annual “overlooked” film festival. On and off through the years, I’ve subscribed to Cineaste, and enjoyed Film Comment and American Cinematographer at the library. When the Internet happened, I cannot say that I religiously read Ebert’s reviews each week (and, truthfully, I stopped watching him on television before Siskel died) but I can say that in the last 15 years or so, before I saw virtually any film, I always made a point of finding out what Ebert had said about it.
When he started blogging and writing about other topics (he did a great piece on the importance of reading) I came to realize that he was about so much more than movies. It was in his essays that we got a better sense of what Ebert was all about. He was smart. He was funny. He had a superior bullshit detector, which accounts for his acerbic comments for the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Because he was never able to extricate himself from the orbit of the Democratic Party, his liberal politics were never in complete alignment with my own, but one never doubted his good sense and decency. He seemed motivated by humane principles and, more often than not, was pissed off about the right things. He was a terrific writer, and I loved the fact that he was mentored by the legendary Mike Royko, of all people, and that he lived with his wife Chaz in a big rambling brownstone in Chicago that was full of books.
I posted comments a few times on his blog, hoping he might respond. He never did. I was disappointed, of course, but at the same time, I wasn’t upset about it, because I knew I was only one of millions who felt like I knew him.
There have been a few others who have shaped my thinking about film over the decades, both those I’ve met and otherwise. But Ebert was there first and has been with me the longest, and so in many ways he was arguably the most influential. I’ve not yet watched the documentary "Life Itself", because — truth be told — I’m just not ready. We’ll save that for a time when I have the house and TV to myself for the inevitable ugly cry.
The other day Ebert inspired me in a way I didn’t see coming. I was watching him and Siskel unpack Michael Mann’s crime epic "Heat", having chosen that film because (other than it being a favorite) Ebert was the same age then as I am now.
I marveled at how young he looked, and then it hit me. Sitting there, musing that the spectacular heist scene that opens the film was less realistic than it was cinematic, Ebert still had more than a decade of work ahead of him. And had he not fallen ill, he’d surely still be seeing movies and writing reviews. It made me realize that if I’m truly as young as he looked back in 1995, I may still have the best years ahead of me.
For other articles written by David Bates, writer/journalist at Medium, click here.