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Remembering Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

April 4, 2013

When I was a kid, we didn’t have Rotten Tomatoes or Fandango. There was no IMDB to refer to and there weren’t myriad film blogs and websites to refer to for fresh takes on newly released films. Instead, we had Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies” kept us cinematically informed from 1982 until 1999, when Siskel died after treatment for a brain tumor. (After his death, his wife released some of the thousands of letters she received from fans who mourned his death with her. They were reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, for which Siskel was a film critic).

Now Ebert has also died at age 70, after a long battle with cancer, which resulted in the removal of parts of his jaw and face. In 2011, Salon published an excerpt from Ebert’s memor called, simply, “Life Itself: A Memoir,” in which the film critic discussed his philosophy on death, which he acknowledged was probably not too far off.

But here’s how I like to remember Ebert: As a film critic who knew how to balance intellectual film criticism with personal observation that kept his reviews down to earth (and easy to digest for mainstream TV audiences). Here are Siskel and Ebert reviewing Goodfellas.

He could also be a bit ornery – he and Siskel had an epic battle over the worth of 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, which Ebert found monumentally disappointing. Siskel disagreed.

Toward the end of his life, Ebert couldn’t use his voice, so he took to Twitter to express himself. His handle was @ebertchicago, and his last tweet was made on April 3 at 1:13 AM. He wrote: “My leave of presence: An update” and linked to this piece in the Chicago Sun Times, in which he explained what he wanted to do next:

“What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year. …

The immediate reason for my “leave of presence” is my health. The “painful fracture” that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to. I have been watching more of them on screener copies that the studios have been kind enough to send to me. My friend and colleague Richard Roeper and other critics have stepped up and kept the newspaper and website current with reviews of all the major releases. So we have and will continue to go on.

At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness. … So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Rest well, Roger Ebert. We’ll miss you.


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