The Two Roger Eberts: Emphatic Critic on TV; Incisive Reviewer in Print

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Words of writer­ly wis­dom from the late Roger Ebert, whom sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans came to rec­og­nize not just as a film crit­ic, but as the very per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of film crit­i­cism. He earned this place in the coun­try’s zeit­geist by mas­ter­ing two stark­ly dis­parate types of media: the medi­um-length but always sub­stan­tial review writ­ten for news­pa­pers, and the short con­ver­sa­tion­al review broad­cast on tele­vi­sion. The for­mer we read in the form of his syn­di­cat­ed film pieces for the Chica­go Sun-Times; the lat­ter we watched on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. After his co-host Gene Siskel’s pass­ing in 1999, Ebert con­tin­ued with Roger Ebert and the Movies, fol­lowed by Ebert and Roeper and the Movies. But long­time fans of his film crit­i­cism on tele­vi­sion, and new fans dis­cov­er­ing the show’s old episodes on the inter­net, will always look back to Ebert’s on-air debates — which some­times devolved, sim­ply, into fights — as the peak of the form, at least in terms of enter­tain­ment val­ue. Above you’ll find a clas­sic exam­ple in Siskel and Ebert’s tiff over the fire­fight in Stan­ley Kubrick­’s Full Met­al Jack­et. “I have nev­er felt a kill in a movie quite like that,” insists Siskel. “Not in Apoc­a­lypse Now? Not in The Deer Hunter? Not in Pla­toon?” Ebert asks before his riposte: “In that case, you’re going to love the late show, because they have kills like that every night in black and white star­ring John Wayne.” (BTW, we have a col­lec­tion of John Wayne films here.)

Ebert knew how to deliv­er that metaphor­i­cal punch (and, when nec­es­sar­i­ly, to approach the edge of actu­al fisticuffs) on tele­vi­sion. In print, he knew how to remain curi­ous and thought­ful even when served each week’s heap­ing help­ing of stu­dio medi­oc­rity. This milder, more com­pli­cat­ed, vast­ly knowl­edge­able crit­i­cal per­sona comes through in his 1996 con­ver­sa­tion with Char­lie Rose (part one, part two) just above. Though he could cel­e­brate and dis­miss with the utmost con­vic­tion, he also under­stood that the film crit­ic has high­er duties than eval­u­a­tion. He demon­strates this under­stand­ing all through­out his review archive, which, embrac­ing the web before most crit­ics of his gen­er­a­tion, he’d put online by the mid-nineties. Back then, I spent an hour or two every day after school in the library, plow­ing through his back pages. I thought I was learn­ing about the movies, as indeed I was, and I was cer­tain­ly learn­ing a thing or two about review­ing the movies, but I was above all learn­ing about the whole craft of writ­ing, and thus about approach­ing the world, cin­e­mat­ic and oth­er­wise. We won’t remem­ber Roger Ebert for the stars he doled out and with­held, nor for the angle of his thumbs; we’ll remem­ber him for his abil­i­ty to, through the lens of the movies, con­sid­er life itself. 

Relat­ed con­tent:

Roger Ebert Talks Mov­ing­ly About Los­ing and Re-Find­ing His Voice (TED 2011)

Blade Run­ner is a Waste of Time: Siskel & Ebert in 1982

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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