Roger Ebert: The balcony is closed

It’s an unfortunate truism that the older one gets, the less remarkable becomes the news of the death of a well-known public figure. Still, hearing of the passing of Roger Ebert struck me with far more sadness than usual. He was one of those people for whom I had a true fondness and respect. I shared his love of movies, of course. But he and Gene Siskel were probably my first real introduction to the art of movie reviewing and analysis, and helped in part with the development of my own critical thinking on the subject.

ebert_siskelMy appreciation for Ebert went all the way back to “Sneak Previews”. I recall fondly watching this, their first nationally broadcast show. Each week, there was the jaunty whistling theme, the montage of movie marquees and a bustling old-fashioned ticket booth, and then Roger and Gene debating the merits of the week’s releases. It was a weekly ritual that I always looked forward to and rarely missed. It was also, at  the time, one of the few places to see clips of the new releases, so it felt extra-special.

Ebert himself presented an affable figure, a more easygoing persona in contrast to his TV partner (and newspaper arch-rival) Siskel, who had a more acerbic and less-forgiving approach. (I did always feel that Ebert was the one went a little too easy on a lot of films, but in retrospect I think I share his more forgiving approach to criticism.) The contrast was perfectly matched, both in temperament and physical appearance, and it made for great entertainment.

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As Siskel and Ebert gained more and more success, they also seemed to move on to new distributors and newly-titled versions of their show. Each time they did, I noticed that the show they left behind always continued with other hosts, so by the time they’d gone from “Sneak Previews” to “At the Movies” to the somewhat oddly-titled “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies”, they’d left a trail of movie-review shows in their wake. And why not – it was a great format. But the originators were always the best, and the only ones I watched faithfully week in and week out.

Thinking of those years now, they seem so long ago, and I’m reminded yet again of the impermanence of life, and that the most vital and immediate pleasures can all too soon become wistful memories.

It already felt like the end of an era with Gene Siskel’s passing a few years ago, and Ebert himself undergoing a startling physical transformation due to his own battles with illness. But he was also an inspiration, as he refused to let those barriers keep him from doing what he loved – writing about movies, and increasingly as he inhabited the blogosphere, other topics as well. He seemed to defy his physical limitations as he maintained his presence as a writer, commentator, and even the host of Ebertfest, an annual film festival.

That determination and energy he continued to show online made it even more of a shock than it should have been to learn of his death. Only two days before, he’d posted his “leave of presence“, telling of the discovery of a new cancer and his reducing his workload for a while – and yet, he accompanied this news with so many plans for the future that the net effect was remarkably positive. But a mere two days later, it became his final blog post.

So, like so many others, I will truly miss Roger Ebert and his unique, well-considered opinions. My only slight consolation is that there are so many of his past reviews and writing I have yet to enjoy. There’s his many books, one of which I’ve already enjoyed and many more still to read. And thanks to RogerEbert.com website, newly revised and relaunched, I’ll be able to continue to read his reviews for a long time to come. Plus, the fan site SiskelAndEbert.org has archived videos of the old shows – going back to the first one. It’s a great, if melancholy, trip down memory lane.

So, thanks to all of that, the balcony will in some sense remain open for a long time to come.

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