Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thumbs on the Pulse

In the mid-to-late 1990s, if the Allard family was at home for dinner on a Saturday night, I made sure we watched "Siskel & Ebert." Under the half-hearted protest of my bored younger sister, I habitually watched these two Chicago-bred film critics debate the merits of new movies. I even remember hearing of Gene Siskel's passing less than 30 minutes before their show aired (the show was taped days earlier; Tom Shales filled in). The show soldiered on for another seven or eight years, first with a rotation of other critics --Michael Wilmington, Siskel's successor at the Chicago Tribune, appeared to be drunk in his sole TV appearance-- than with Ebert's Sun-Times cohort Richard Roeper.

Where Siskel and Ebert were rivals that did their best to be as professional as possible on-screen, Roeper and Ebert had more of a mentor/mentee relationship. When Ebert took a medical leave of absence in mid-2006, the same sick leave that resulted in the removal of his jaw, vocal cords, and ability to eat and drink, Roeper was joined by a second parade of guest movie critics. The show languished without Roger, I grew too busy to watch, and eventually Roeper and a still-rehabing Ebert were squeezed out by their own producers. Roeper continues to post clips of his reviews online, and Ebert (with a computerized voice) tried to relaunch his show on PBS, but it wasn't the same. In spite of his physical deformities, Ebert maintained a strong presence in social media, arguing about cinema and current events with fans around the world.

I never had the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert, but I considered him an influence in my writing. If we were ever in the same room I would have shrieked like a fanboy, but now that time has come and gone. My pipe dream of reviewing movies for a living didn't totally pan out, but Ebert made writing a compelling career.  Even if film criticism belongs in its own category, Ebert was a quinessentially Chicagoan writer in the mold of Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel. He was literate and verbose but never high-strung or patronizing; he was witty without being mean-spirited; he deconstructed art films and popcorn flicks with equal aplomb. Roger Ebert was the face and spirit of modern film criticism and there will never be another one like him.

Other notes:

+ The ten-year anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom went by without much fanfare. In all likelihood, the mere mention of the invasion of Iraq would have reopened old wounds. The debate as to whether invading was justified, long dormant, would rise again as shrill as it was in 2003. I can understand why some people minced words.

I remember the invasion vividly for two reasons. It was the first "cause" that I ever got myself caught up in. Second, it was the first American war to be captured by a 24-hour news cycle gone amok, the three-headed hydra of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News running phrases like "Breaking News" and "Alert" into the ground.

One decade on, the pros and cons of Operation Enduring Freedom nearly negate each other.  The expense of the war contributed to the financial situation that cripples our country right now, and even though we successfully removed Saddam Hussein from power, the "Arab Spring" of 2011 suggested that his downfall could've happened more organically. On the other hand, every war has its casualties, and I am convinced our troops did not die in vain; they fought with unparagoned honor and grace.


  1. And don't forget Ebert's greatest actual contribution to cinema: "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls". If you haven't seen it, then you won't have a clue why "hypocrite" should be included when recounting Ebert's legacy.

  2. *chuckles* Ebert was catering to Roger Corman's style. "Beyond" is a very trashy movie, but there are flourishes of wit. Hypocrite or not, Ebert found his niche as a film critic.