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Film Critic Roger Ebert Has Cancer — Again!

roger ebertIt’s so weird to write a review about a movie that you hated and somebody else loved. Well, it’s not weird until that person confronts you. They send letters, emails, leave voice mails, or corner you at a dinner party to ask “Why didn’t you like the last Die Hard? It was awesome.”

I always find those conversations fun, if everyone can be civil. They rarely are on the internet, for some reason. Perhaps that anonymity gives people the power to be rude.

I was talking to some fellow critics and friends after the awful Guilt Trip screening, and an old man leaving another movie recognized me from Fox 5. He quickly went from the pleasure of meeting me, to angrily snapping at me for not liking The Hobbit. His grandkids were trying to pull him away, but he wanted to give me his opinion. It was a spirited debate in the cold parking lot of the Reading Cinemas in Clairemont.

I roll my eyes when I hear other film critics talk about how great the late Pauline Kael was. She wrote for the New Yorker, and yes – she could write film criticism better than most. Roger Ebert said “She had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.”

I agree more with Woody Allen, who said about Kael, “She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don’t mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising.”

A perfect example of that is The Graduate. It’s a classic. She didn’t like it, and said Dustin Hoffman had a “blankness”…which was sort of the point.

She also disliked A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sting, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, and a few other Hitchcock films.

Siskel & Ebert were my favorite critics, and just writing that means I’m going to take a lot of ribbing from the others in the San Diego Film Critic Society.

Here’s what I liked about them. They didn’t come across as pretentious (See Kael, or San Diego’s retired Duncan Shepherd). They were like average guys that had a passion for film. They argued because, well…wouldn’t you? If you liked a movie, and somebody else is making fun of it, you take it as an insult; or you at least want to defend what you liked about it and try to change their mind. The truth is, they didn’t argue as much as people remember. Great movies are great movies, and the bad movies most agree on. It’s not that often you get a polarizing film.

In their 23 years together, they started the show Sneak Previews on PBS, which let to At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert.

Gene Siskel passed away from 1999 after more than a decade of health problems.

Roger Ebert went through a trial period with various critics, and they went with Richard Roeper. Ebert finally got his name first, something that Siskel & Ebert playfully joked about when they appeared on Letterman.

Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and cancerous growths in his salivary glands in 2003. In 2006, the complications from cancer left him without his lower jaw, and he lost the ability to speak (his thumbs still worked fine, though).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hadn’t seen him since then, but still read his stuff. Then last night, I saw a story in the Chicago Tribune by Mark Caro.

It was announced that Ebert was going to cut down his work load as the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, because of a recurrence of cancer. He had a painful fracture that made it difficult for him to walk. The fracture revealed the cancer, and it’s being treated with radiation. On his online journal Ebert wrote: “It has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to.”

I remember reading a story about Ebert after they removed most of his lower jaw. The picture was shocking, and he opted to let the magazine use the photo. In a TV interview, his wife mentioned not eating in front of him, since he could no longer chew and enjoy the foods he loved (nothing beats the story he told on Late Night about stopping to get to jelly donuts at a gas station before the show, and barfing while discussing the movie during taping).

Ebert was always so positive thought all this. He said, “People might say ‘Why me?’ Instead, I say ‘Why not me?’”

Even his latest setback has the positive side of him coming out. He wrote: “I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review…I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975. Forbes magazine named him the Top Pundit in America in 2007. In 2010, he became the Webby Awards’ Person of the Year for online writing and journalism.

When I was a kid watching Siskel & Ebert, it was the idea that two people could break down a movie and discuss it. I was fascinated by that. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the movies. I was just enthralled listening to them dissect it.

When I started reading Roger Ebert’s reviews, I enjoyed them as well. A lot of the time I didn’t agree with him. He’s given so many bad reviews to good movies, and good reviews to bad movies. In 1995 he and Siskel gave thumbs up to Congo, one of the worst movies I saw that year. Two years later, they both gave good reviews to Anaconda. Baffling, especially when they gave thumbs down to Unforgiven (a movie I loved, and got nominated for over 10 Oscars).

Yet reading his written reviews were great, because he’d sometimes turn them into stories or songs. I loved when he’d do open letters to the filmmaker or audiences.

He’s written over 15 books, and I’ve read many. His Great Movies: The First 100 is a great read, as is Your Movie Sucks, which reminds me of a funny story involving a film critic at the L.A. Times. She had made fun of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, and was really harsh on its star Rob Schneider. He took out an ad in the L.A. Times criticizing her, and talking about how she has no credibility because she doesn’t have a Pulitizer. Ebert jumped in and responded “I have a Pulitizer, and your movie sucked.”

There’s a critic people either love or hate, named Armond White. He basically hates every movie he sees. The joke on Rotten Tomatoes used to be “If Armond hates it, I’ll like it.”

When everybody was attacking him for being the only critic that had given District 9 a bad review on RT, Ebert jumped in to defend him. Even though Ebert liked the movie, he thought White had a point and people need to chill when it comes to critics that don’t agree with them (he then retracted his statement, when he realized how much of a nut White really was); but the fact that he was ready to defend another critic was admirable.

Ebert has done the DVD commentaries on a handful of movies, including the classics Casablanca and Citizen Kane. He also did commentary for Dark City, an interesting sci-fi movie that he voted the best of the year when it was released.

For a critic that actually has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he could be a really classy, down to earth person. A friend of mine went on a cruise he was on, and they had many interesting conversations on film.

When I had a debate with a friend about the movie Jackie Brown, I sent him a letter. He sent me a nice response agreeing with me on the debate, on his letterhead. Nothing like showing that to your friend to prove your point.

When he was at Border’s in San Diego for a book signing, I had a little chat that turned into an argument. I was giving him a hard time for naming Crash the best movie of the year. He wanted to know why I disliked it, and we had this heated argument for about 15 minutes. Neither of us swayed the other, but I did this move I often do in fights. I throw in something irrelevant just to get a dig in. I said “Well…you’re also somebody that gave a thumbs down to Donnie Darko.”

His eyes widened and I thought he was going to throw a punch. He then said “It’s funny you bring that up, because…I initially gave it a thumbs down. I got more letters than any other movie I gave a thumbs down to. People told me to watch it again, since I mentioned being confused by it. It did make a little more sense the second time, and I ended up switching my thumb on that one.”

What made that afternoon even better is that a friend of mine was writing for a tiny publication in San Diego. She had decided against asking him for an interview, fearing he wouldn’t want to bother with a small paper. He ended up telling her “Ya know what? I’m really busy, but give me your card, and we can probably make it happen.”

A week later they did the interview, and her editor was thrilled she scored this interview with a big time critic. A real class guy.

I was thinking about how when I review a kids movie, I either bring a kid or explain in my review whether or not adults will like it as well as kids. I got that from Roger Ebert, who thought it was important to point out things like that. He once said “If somebody asks you if Hellboy was good, they don’t mean in comparison to a film like Mystic River.”

It’s something you have to keep in perspective when doing film criticism.

I like the fact that he’s a knowledgeable critic, but doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. It’s refreshing to have critics out there that might think a movie like Pi is an abstract mess, but that Life of Pi was enjoyable (that was probably a horrible example, as Ebert loved both films).

I give a “Thumbs Up” to Roger Ebert for all he’s done, and wish him well in his recovery.

18 comments

  • Matt

    Awful reviewer that started giving classics thumbs down and stinkers thumbs up nearly as soon as I grew to an age where I knew of him. In my opinion he contributed nothing notable to society and actually took away from much great art and film. Farewell.

  • Jo F.

    I agree with Matt. I didn't agree much with Roger Ebert. Still saddened by his passing. Thanks for the story Mr. Board

  • GoLouisville

    I don’t wish bad on anyone, but he probably had it coming, hate critics of any kind. Criticizing others for a living it’s a horrible and pathetic way to make a living. That’s just my opinion!

  • Mark

    Sorry to have seen him pass away today. I too grew up watching him and Gene Siskel and could relate to your reminiscing of the two of them debating movies. Like him or not, agree with his reviews or not ,he was entertaining to watch. Nobody has this coming. Cancer is a slow killing and painful disease which affects the entire family. Thanks for the tribute.

  • joshboardfox5

    Matt and Jo: You bring up a decent point about his reviews. He liked so many horrible films, but I prefer that over a critic that hates everything they say, and makes you wonder what it is about the movies that even drew them to do what they do. And his enthusiasm for movies, even bad ones, are usually for certain elements involved in the filmmaking that he found original, or just had him entertained. I remember somebody giving me crap because I said such horrible things about Exotic Marigold Hotel, but still gave it 2 1/2 stars. I couldn't give it zero stars, when I was still entertained by a lot of it. It's one of the reasons his books were such great reads. In one, he talks about all the funny cliched things you see in movies. For example, if there's a fruit stand on the side of the road, a car will almost certainly hit it, sending fruit everywhere.
    He'll be missed.

  • joshboardfox5

    GoLouisville: hate to criticize you, as much as you hate critics anyway but…you're sentence is redundant (you write "living" twice in a sentence when it's not necessary). Stick to your day job, and stay away from any screenplays in the future ;-)

  • John J

    It’s none of my business, I couldn’t help, but to get involved and share my thoughts on the response “joshboardfox5” send to “GoLouisville” Actually, his sentence and grammar is correct and makes perfect sense. On the other hand yours, “hate to criticize you, as much as you hate critics anyway but…” does not, your grammar is wrong and you’re missing some commas. Stay away from any screenplays and attend school. Again, couldn’t help, but to get involved 

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