Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Highest Balcony of Them All

Last Thursday while reading the LA Times over breakfast, I read a small blurb about film critic Roger Ebert and his announcement that another health setback was going to have him cut down on the number of movie reviews he would write.

Two hours later, I heard he had died and my immediate thought was that Roger hadn't planning on cutting back that much.  Indeed, in the day that followed, there were many laudatory essays and commentary on Roger Ebert's impact on the world of moviegoing.

And, yes, they were all justified.  Here's yet another passage that has all reflecting on our own designated time of life.  Because, as a young and trying-to-be-intelligent movie fan, it was the work of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert that contributed to my education at a time in my existence where you could always find me in a theater on the opening weekend of a new movie.

Way back when, there were only movie reviews in newspapers.  As a child, that was my only barometer.  The New York Daily News which doled out stars as a benchmark of a film's success or failure.  Even with that tabloid newspaper, the reviewers seemed always a bit erudite and over-educated.  All the movies that got four stars sounded like films that would be boring to me.  The things that appealed to me always wound up with two-and-a-half stars from this ultra-crusty bunch.  And there was usually personal despair when a long-anticipated Disney release, usually ballyhooed on last Sunday's "Wonderful World of Color," got mercilessly panned.  

But, then, about the same time I got older and smarter, there was a PBS show on Channel 13 in New York every Thursday night.  "Sneak Previews" with this two film critics from Chicago, which might have been on the other side of the moon for all I knew.  But, as I tuned in religiously every week, I realized that these were guys reviewing the latest releases with a more down-to-earth and commonplace approach. 

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked to me in a way that I...and everybody else...could understand.  Sometimes, it wasn't about whether a movie was artistically formed.  If they enjoyed something where a lot of crap got blown up, they would tell you so.  This was a cinematic public service like no other I had known.  

And, as a result, "Sneak Previews" became must-see-TV for me.  And loads of other movie fans.

Eventually, their weekly show was so successful that it moved to local TV syndication.  Yet, it still served for me as a guide to what the hell I would be doing on the upcoming weekend.  Or, in some cases, either validating or questioning what I had seen on the previous weekend.  It was actually fun to watch "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies."  Did you agree?  Was your thumb up or down?  Whose side were you on?

Over time, I realized that my tastes seemed to gravitate more towards Gene Siskel.  Sometimes, Roger got a little heavy-handed and stuffy with his commentary.  And he tended to give free passes to anything that was either produced in Chicago or filmed by a Black director.  I always thought that, being married to an African-American woman, Roger had no recourse but to over-glorify certain movies.  If you look at his reviews over time, you will notice the same tendency.

Nevertheless, both Gene and Roger remained my weekly movie guide for years.  When Siskel died in 1999, the show lost a little of its luster for me.  And Roger, in the lead role with a cacophony of guest co-hosts, got even more heavy-handed.  But, at the same time, this program was still doing its job.  Telling the avid movie fan all about what was populating the multiplexes that weekend.  And doing it in a manner that we could all understand and appreciate.

Later on, as many know, Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer.  The news was literally and figuratively jaw dropping, effectively robbing the film critic of his voice.  

Well, not really.

Because, even though he could no longer speak, Roger Ebert still had plenty to say.  And he didn't lose his ability to formulate his opinions and type them into a computer.  The reviews kept coming.  In fact, during 2012, he had written reviews for 306 films, which is the most he had done in any single year.  There was no slowing him down.  A true testament to the passion he had for his craft.  And the movies we all love to love and love to hate.

Admittedly, during his later years, Roger did get a little screwy.  He would expand his commentary beyond film to a myriad of controversial topics that he had little knowledge of.  Heck, some of this nonsense even earned him a Len Speaks honor of "Moron of the Month for May 2010."  His tweets on current events would be cringe-worthy.  I wanted to tell him to shut the hell up and stick to what he knew.

Because when he talked about the movies, we all wanted to listen.  Agreeing or disagreeing was immaterial.  The real headline was that he was still speaking to us.  And, since I do movie reviews on this blog, I will try to continue in the same way.  Telling you what I like and what I hate.  A small homage to the guys who got decent movie reviewing started.

Thanks to both Roger and Gene for shaping our cinematic existences.  May all the movies you see in that heavenly balcony be all "thumbs up."

Dinner last night:  Hamburger and salad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roger and Gene were great at guiding you through the thicket of crap and brilliance that can be playing at any given moment.

They offered a valuable service and did it without fuss, a no-frills directness I'd call Midwestern. They were not Hollywood ass kissers.

They were two Chicago pros who let you in on what to catch and what to flee. They gave you a sense that they were personal friends or co-workers. I never got that from any other critics on TV.

With their talent came ego. Half the fun was watching their flinty friction, the disagreements, the insults. It could get nasty. I loved it.

Roger and Gene have now joined Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby, the only other movie critics worth following. They're all gone. The balcony's empty.