In Memoriam: Roger Ebert
Rotten Tomatoes on memories of the great film critic.
-Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief
I don't know what it is about Siskel & Ebert that hooked me the first time I saw their show on a Saturday evening. It's just two guys arguing and discussing movies. It was entertaining and informative. Just as I liked to see how my favorite actors fared at the box office, I also liked to see how they fared with critics.
When I was looking for a name to call my movie review aggregation site, I was thinking "Thumbs Down" - as a tribute to the show. How cool would it be to have a big thumb squashing a bad movie? I was naive. Luckily, Ebert, Siskel, Disney and cybersquatters had already bought domain names for every permutation of "Two Thumbs Up." I had to find a more obscure name -- Rotten Tomatoes -- and not have to face lawsuits by the show I revered.
I've only met him twice, but we've corresponded via email throughout the years. The first time I met him was at an event about online videos, and I think he was representing Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. What struck me immediately after our brief conversation was how enthusiastic and accepting of the internet he was. The second time was when we were at Cannes at one of those media parties; Chaz was with him.
He had always been very generous. He wrote about Rotten Tomatoes on Yahoo! Internet Life, the Chicago Sun-Times website, on his show, and even when he was on Jay Leno.
I feel grateful and privileged to have known him, a hero who has influenced me to watch movies and build movie websites. It's a sad day. Condolences to his wife Chaz and their grandkids.
-Senh Duong, Rotten Tomatoes Founder
I've probably spent more hours reading Roger Ebert than any other writer. My love affair with his writing began in high school, when I pulled my parents' copy of his Video Home Companion off a dusty shelf. Ebert had a way of writing about movies that was infectious, and his taste in movies was generous and accessible. Whether he was reviewing blockbusters or obscure foreign films, his writing was so nuanced and inviting that you could visualize specific moments with uncanny clarity; years later, when I finally got around to actually watching movies he'd reviewed, I was amazed at how similar they were to his descriptions. But above all, Ebert codified a philosophy of watching movies that's been a guide for me throughout the years: "A film is not what it's about, but how it's about it."
To make a long story short, I'm now a professional movie review reader, and I owe a lot to Roger Ebert. May he rest in peace.
-Tim Ryan, Senior Editor
My relationship with Mr. Ebert began when I was a kid sitting in front of a TV screen, wondering why he was speaking so passionately at that other gentleman about something as silly as movies. Back then, in the good old days of my softer, slightly less-formed skull, I just stared at the gorgeous big, glowing screen for laughs or something to do (unless I was watching the spaceship landing in E.T., which for some reason elicited such deep, bellowing screams of fear my parents said it was hard to imagine them coming from a little girl).
Siskel and Ebert reminded me of Bert and Ernie, so I liked them. But as new neurons formed in my brain and movies started to affect me more profoundly than the E.T. screams, the puzzle pieces fell into place. These guys were intelligent, articulate, and entertaining, just like the movies I enjoyed.
As I got older, I gravitated towards Ebert's writing, which served as a blueprint for how to really look inside a film and discuss it through an emotional, technical, and historical lens. His love of movies never seemed to waver, which I am truly in awe of. Once I had to sit through Dave Matthews picking a coconut up his butt in an Adam Sandler movie, I seriously reconsidered the whole "professional critic" thing. The fact that Ebert did it for decades is a testament to a man in his element, making the world a smarter place.
And to make things better, he not only inspired me to keep learning and striving to be better informed and focused in my work, he also helped me figure out how to maximize the potential of my rice cooker at home (seriously, if you haven't read The Pot and How to Use It, get thee to Amazon post-haste). Roger Ebert was such a bright star in this world, you didn't even have to see him in person to bathe in his light. Thank you for the inspiration, Roger.
-Grae Drake, Senior Editor
I've played video games my entire life and, before joining Rotten Tomatoes, was set on a career in game criticism. Thus, I have had a contentious interpretation of Roger Ebert, the man who, for whatever reason, took any chance to pillorize video games as a legitimate medium. Ebert's most infamous strikes lay in his 2005 review of Doom, and a combative 2010 blog post titled "Video games can never be art" which featured lines like, "Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." On this particular topic, I did not learn much from him.
On other topics, I did. The way he wrote -- breathlessly consistent, his homespun wit instantly recognizable -- suggested he held the most honest-working relationship between a critic and the words he/she put on paper that this business had to offer. He wrote what he felt, he felt what he wrote. Ebert was multifaceted, offering long opinions on subjects nobody thought a man who had devoted his soul to cinema would have. I disliked many of these opinions, but they were reminders of how complex we all are and, given the talent or forum, how much we may have to say. Ebert had the most to say on Twitter, a second home he seemed to never leave. I was heavily involved with the Rotten Tomatoes Twitter account for several years, and I closely studied Ebert on how to do it right.
The great lesson from Ebert came in 2006. You know where this is going: Losing the ability to speak, health never to be fully recovered. Life is tragic. So is fate. And rarely do the two collude to be this ironic. "Roger Ebert, the on- air personality who revolutionized how we watched and made movies, has lost his voice." But a man in full faith of his self is not lost for long. I think Ebert took particular delight with the success of the internet, being an early supporter of Google search and a lifelong sci-fi fan. Ebert took to the web, dominated Twitter and the blogosphere in a way that was surprising to no one, dominating the same way as with his lot on television.
Ultimately, Ebert cooled down the rhetoric on video games, conceding that while his opinion remained, he did not have the time, will, nor experience with video games to deliver definitive arguments. Around the same time, his friend Martin Scorsese (who is producing a film on Ebert's life) shot Hugo in 3D, in his way claiming that a limit on what one could/should do (as Scorsese previously stated on 3D and digital) limits their own humanity. Ebert began strictly as a writer and he died strictly writing. He could not have predicted the external pain of his final years, but emotionally I could see he was the strongest he had ever been. And so, Roger Ebert's parting lesson for me: Be open to new experiences, be humble enough to re-examine your own, be curious, steadfast, and philosophical, for all this is a means to be young forever.
-Alex Vo, Editor
While I haven't kept up in recent years, I will always have fond memories of Mr. Ebert. It was expected nightly that my family would be tuned into "Sneak Previews," and then "At the Movies," on TV during dinner. Growing up, Siskel and Ebert were right there in the kitchen with us as we ate.
We all got excited about seeing the trailers and preview scenes for films we were looking forward to seeing (this was way before web instant magic). Hearing Siskel and Ebert discuss, debate and quarrel about each film provided more fun icing on the cake. So Siskel and Ebert really were pretty much like guests at our dinner table.
In anticipation of the Return of the Jedi episode of "At the Movies" in 1983, I fondly recall my brother and I specifically scheduling out the time to be home to watch it. Our parents were not allowed to schedule anything while the episode was on. No events, no activities and NO PHONE CALLS! We were flipping out when we realized the entire 30 minute episode would be devoted to RotJ. Nobody else was doing that at the time. We couldn't get this type of media anywhere else.
And that "two thumbs up" became a huge catchphrase in modern vocabulary further stresses what a huge influence Siskel and Ebert have had on our entire culture.
I often debate critic opinion but I tended to agree with Ebert more than some others, so I felt an extra bit of kinship there. It always seemed to me that he had a very open mind, even when it came to films that may not be so critically acclaimed.
When Siskel passed, I was saddened. And now I'm even more saddened because both of our dinner guests from my youth are gone. RIP Roger. Two thumbs way up.
-Kerr Lordygan, Contributor
Most people age, but it takes a special sort to become an elder statesman. Roger Ebert will be remembered by most for his long career in film criticism. For the generation of writers that came up in the 1990s and 2000s, Roger has a special distinction. Ebert was way ahead of the rest of the mainstream in encouraging the new generation of online writers. Upcomingmovies.com was a website that I started in my apartment in Oshkosh as a way of organizing what I knew about new movies before their release so that my online friends wouldn't have to see me in chatrooms reposting the same things ad infinitum. Roger Ebert was one of the site's earliest proponents, but it wasn't just one plug. When you were lucky enough to get Roger's attention, he was lavish with his promotion. I went on to be quoted several times in Roger's "Movie Answer Man" column, and was invited to be a V.I.P. guest at his Ebertfest in his hometown of Urbana-Champaign. My favorite memory of Roger, however, came when the "anime expert" didn't show up for the planned discussion of Grave of the Fireflies at Roger's 2nd Overlooked Film Festival in 2000. Roger asked me if I would join him on stage, and I said that I was honored, but I wasn't sure how much of an "anime expert" I was. He said, "Well, you know what anime is." Looking back now, I guess the point wasn't so much that Roger needed an expert, but that he saw in me a member of the new generation, and he wanted to give me a chance. That's what Roger meant to me, I think, and others of our generation. He was the established film writer who went out of his way to help us up the ladder, in a way that almost no one else among his peers ever did. I will also always watch out for the left aisle seat on the left aisle, second row from the back, at any film festival I ever attend. Everyone knows, that's Roger's seat.
-Greg Dean Schmitz, Contributor