“I read the news today, oh boy” is the first line of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” one of many classic songs from their classic 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In April of that year, a young and portly journalist named Roger Joseph Ebert was asked by the Chicago Sun Times to serve as the newspaper’s film critic. He occupied that slot for the next 46 years.
“And though the news was rather sad,” goes the next line of the song. Yes, the news was sad indeed, for today, April 4, 2013, marked the passing of legendary film critic Roger Ebert at age 70. Just another day in the life of a movie reviewer…? Not likely, not with ole Rodge in the critic’s chair.
For over 30 years, Ebert was a constant presence in people’s humdrum lives, including my own. Not a week went by – or a single day, for that matter – when I didn’t check his online Website for the latest reviews, or the latest happenings in the world of cinema.
Roger Ebert influenced the way I looked at movies from early on. My fondest memory of him was when he co-hosted the PBS network’s Sneak Previews (later changed to At the Movies, and still later to Siskel & Ebert and the Movies) from 1978 until 2006, or thereabouts. His partner for those first 21 years was fellow film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, who died in 1999. After that, Ebert went on with the show but with a variety of co-hosts, the most familiar being his Sun Times colleague Richard Roeper. But the two whose opinions I cared the most about were Siskel and Ebert. Their views were the ones I waited for every Friday evening.
Ebert could concisely explain a movie’s plot or story line, in as easy and understandable a way as few critics could. Oh, I still enjoy and follow A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, but Ebert was a truly special case. He really came alive when he joined Siskel in a one-on-one, no holds barred verbal sparring match, over the pros and cons of the latest movie releases. Roger knew a thing or two about film history, but so did Gene. Roger loved the art of making motion pictures, but so did Gene. In that, they were equally matched – and superbly gifted, too, especially in front of the TV cameras.
I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of Roger’s reviews I disagreed with. One of these was his positively glowing recommendation of My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 film directed by Louis Malle, and co-starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. I’ll never forget Gene Siskel’s undisguised enthusiasm in discussing the scene where Shawn is walking down a Manhattan street, grumbling every step of the way about having to meet up with his eccentric friend, Andre. “I’d like to know this guy,” Gene gushed. “I’d like to have dinner with him, too,” countered Roger. Both critics fell over themselves with admiration for the flick. So much so that they convinced me to go see it.
It happened that My Dinner with Andre was playing near Lincoln Center that weekend. Armed with Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs up, off I went to catch this four-star feature. A silver-haired old usher in a red velvet jacket handed me my ticket, as I shuffled inside to find my seat. After the movie started, I noticed that the waiter in the movie, serving both Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory at the titular dinner table, was the self-same silver-haired usher who I had just thanked for the ticket. What a start to the show, I thought!
Hunkering down in the dark, I began to watch the film. And as I watched, I sat with arms folded, waiting for that streak of enlightenment, that bolt out of the blue, that shining light of awe and inspiration that Roger and Gene had insisted was just around the cinematic corner. It never came. I was so bored and frustrated that I left the theater more downcast than when I went in. What happened? What went wrong? How could my two favorite movie critics have let me down and gotten this half-baked excuse for a movie so wrong?
It’s taken me 30 years to finally understand what Roger Ebert and his late friend and partner, Gene Siskel, were so enthusiastic about, why each of them had lavishly praised this so-so film so highly. The reason? They fully identified with the main protagonists. Wallace Shawn was short, stocky, round-faced and down to earth – just as Roger Ebert was. Andre Gregory was tall, slim, eloquent and erudite – much like Gene Siskel was. But I failed to notice it at the time. How could I miss it? Wasn’t it obvious? Not to me, it wasn’t. I didn’t “look” at the picture in the way those two experts had. How could I? All I saw were two boring guys, two men of the theater, talking on and on about their respective lives from two absolutely opposite viewpoints. Their common thread was the theater.
But didn’t Gene and Roger do the exact same thing? Every week, four times a month, for well-nigh 20 seasons, didn’t they talk about the movies, argue over the movies, discuss, dissect, evaluate and examine the movies in as analytical a detail, and in as entertaining a fashion, as Andre and Wallace had? You bet they did! And where was I that I never noticed it – until now?
Since then, I noticed a lot about Roger Ebert. In fact, I must’ve read hundreds, no, thousands of his reviews. I’ve read his Great Movies series (twice), and his hilariously informative I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, a guide to the worst possible films you’ll never want to see. I can’t say that I hated, hated, hated My Dinner with Andre. I just didn’t see what my favorite critics saw in it. Poor me!
I don’t feel so sad anymore. Quite the contrary, I’m happy to have seen and heard and read Roger’s work as much as I have. Last month, I attempted to comment, on his Facebook page, a posting that Roger had made. He complained, just as little Wallace Shawn would, about having to post the same piece twice or more times in order for it to appear — something to do with a quirk in the Facebook system. I wrote back, saying that he, Roger Ebert, movie critic par excellence, could post his pieces as many times as he wanted, that no matter how many times he posted them we’d be happy to read them.
I never got a reply, although I’d like to think that somehow, Roger saw my comment. Maybe he even “liked” it. I’ll never know for sure. But that’s all right. I can live with the knowledge that I wrote to my favorite movie critic, reply or no reply.
The last line of “A Day in the Life” happens to be: “I’d love to turn you on.” That’s what Ebert did. He turned me, and many of my generation (and beyond), on to the power and wonder of the movies. Wherever he is, wherever his buddy Gene is, they’ll get two thumbs way up from me, just for being Siskel and Ebert.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes