Roger Ebert: Back to the future of film criticism
It would be fair to say that I'm not an objective observer when it comes to the news that Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have quit their longtime gig as hosts of "At the Movies," Disney/ABC's weekly TV review show. When I was a young pup in film school in Chicago, Roger Ebert was already a prince in the critical pantheon, first from his perch as critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, then as a TV reviewer (with Gene Siskel) on their original PBS movie review show. Roger's writing--crisp, spare, seemingly effortless, opinionated but never mean-spirited--was a huge inspiration to all of us young writers. He was also generous with his time. When the college arts series I ran was losing money, bankrupted by a series of hapless, hopelessly pretentious theater productions, we staged a Russ Meyer Film Festival, with Roger generously agreeing to take the stage and introduce the first night's proceedings. The sex films played to a packed house, teaching us a valuable lesson about showbiz success--you can never aim too low.
More recently, Roger came to my defense when I got into a spitting match with comedy second-banana Rob Schneider, who took out a series of full-page ads in the trades deriding me after I made a sarcastic quip about his film, "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," saying it was "sadly overlooked at Oscar time because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for Best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic." Schneider blasted me in his ads, saying I'd never won a Pulitzer Prize either. This inspired Ebert to end his review of its sequel "European Gigolo," by saying: "As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."
The news that Ebert and Roeper are quitting the TV series is being played as yet another instance of the dumbing down of media culture, which is no doubt a fair explanation. They are being replaced by younger talent with considerably less stature; Ben Lyons, who's been reviewing films for "E! News," and Ben Mankiewicz, who's been a talking head at Turner Classic Movies and hosts a pop culture show for Sirius Satellite Radio. Frankly, it's understandable that ABC would seek a younger generation of critics in its effort to liven up an aging show, especially in an era where critics are embattled and far less influential than ever before. It's also hardly a news flash that Ebert would have to step down sooner or later. Having battled health problems over the past few years, including a bout with throat cancer, he is unable to speak, making it impossible to handle a TV gig.
But I don't see this as the end of Western Civilization, Part 983, and here's why:
The future of criticism, be it reviews of movies, pop music, theater, dance or video games, is not inextricably linked to television. In fact, the success of the original "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies" was a fluke, owing more to the engaging personalities of the two critics than their actual opinions. Siskel and Ebert, though trained as ink-stained wretch newspaper men, turned out to be a great showbiz buddy team, the film-critic version of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. They had a chemistry on screen that transcended critical heft. Siskel was no Pauline Kael-style deep thinker, but on camera, he had verve and a dry wit. Tall and slender, Siskel was Stan Laurel to Ebert's chubby Oliver Hardy. They were song and dance men, even when reviewing the drekiest of summer trash. As much as I admire Ebert, once Siskel was gone--he died in 1999--the show lost momentum. The magic was gone. Teaming Ebert with Roeper, with all due respect, was like putting Walter Matthau on screen with Greg Kinnear--a respectable match, but not one made in heaven.
Television is a performance medium. Criticism is about words and ideas, which is why it belongs on the page, be it in a newspaper or on a computer screen. As a fan of Ebert, I'm delighted to see him abandoning TV and putting all his energy into writing again. It's where he belongs. He recently launched a blog, called Roger Ebert's Journal, which has been an absolute delight to read, with Roger weighing in on everything from Robert Downey Jr. to Werner Herzog to the F-word (and I don't mean film) to Studs Terkel, Chicago's greatest living cultural artifact next to Ernie Banks. Writing about Terkel's insatiable curiosity, even in the twilight of his life--Terkel is 96--Ebert said: "You hear about people retiring and then dying a month later, maybe because their life has lost its purpose for them. The lesson Studs teaches me every day is that to live is to live is to live."
Maybe that's why I'm not crying in my beer about Ebert and Roeper leaving "At the Movies." As long as Roger keeps writing, the future of criticism will still be in good hands.
Here, proving they could've been a great comedy team, is a funny clip of Siskel and Ebert doing the dozens in an outtake from a promo session for the show:
Here, also from their heyday, is a classic "Siskel and Ebert" review of "Pulp Fiction:"
Photo of Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper from Fred Jewell; Gene Siskel and Ebert from Buena Vista Television