In anticipation of the acclaimed documentary Life Itself and its upcoming release, the TFS team has gathered their personal reflections of the film’s main subject — iconic film critic Roger Ebert. From his humble personality, to his unabashed critique, Ebert has left his admirers with life lessons that remain a part of his legacy in pop culture. Here’s what Ebert taught us.
Roger Ebert taught me that no matter how famous or important you become, you can still be a respectful and courteous moviegoer. For some years I volunteered at the Toronto International Film Festival working at the front of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a venue that Mr. Ebert attended regularly during the festival. I was pleasantly surprised how he would always have a ticket to the movie he was attending. He would hold it high so that we could direct him, and would never barge his way in. He always asked first where he should go. Naturally someone of Ebert’s stature could do whatever he wanted, but he never presumed, and treated staff and volunteers with great respect. Many lesser-known critics and press attending these events have much to learn from Ebert.
Roger Ebert was probably the first person to make me interested in foreign-language films. The first time I ever watched At The Movies in February 1999, he helmed the balcony solo. (Siskel would pass away two weeks later.) Ebert recommended an Oscar-nominated film from Iran on that program, the lovely family drama Children of Heaven. Although the clip is not online, he wrote in his four-star review: “Immediately you think kids would not be interested in such a movie. It has subtitles. Good lord! Kids will have to read them! But its subtitles are easy for 8- or 9-year olds, who can whisper them to their siblings, and maybe this is their perfect introductions to subtitles.” While most other critics would write about that film as it would benefit adult audiences, Ebert knew that the drama was kid-friendly and that young moviegoers would love it. The next weekend, my father and I took the subway downtown to the Carlton Cinemas to see the film – the first one with subtitles I had seen. My love for world cinema deepened. Thumbs up to you, Mr. Ebert, for the recommendation.
While I can’t say I agreed with Ebert’s assessments all that much, he did show me that film criticism could be an entertaining read in its own right, particularly when discussing bad movies. He knew how to put down a movie in a simultaneously scathing and delightful way. And since he always made sure to watch the dregs of what was being released alongside everything else, there was a ton of hilarious scorn to go around. His two books, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks,” compiling some of these reviews were pretty influential to me.
I don’t think that it was possible for anyone of my generation to have grown up without seeing a “Two Thumbs Up” pull quote from Siskel and Ebert. I didn’t begin watching the show until late into its run, but I do like how it supported a viewpoint of film criticism that I hold dear, which is that everyone has the right to their own opinion. While I admit that I agreed less with Ebert’s reviews as he got older–and somewhat more out of touch with modern filmmaking–he was still the critic I respected the most.
To be honest, I’ve usually avoided Roger Ebert’s reviews, as I do with many other reviews before I watch a film. However, Ebert played a large role in why I began writing movie reviews in the first place. With such a long career, and a huge amount of film reviews, it became a personal challenge for me to try and reach that same level. I wanted to watch as many films as Ebert and have my reviews available on the internet for all to see. After over 1500 reviews, I still have a lot of catching up to do.