Thumbs up! Two thumbs up for the late, great Roger Ebert.
News of Ebert’s death last Thursday left me sad but launched a wave of good memories.
For so many years, one of my weekly-ritual popcorn pleasures was to watch “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies” with hosts Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Many times, I actually made a big bowl of popcorn to enjoy while watching that show.
My opinions of movies coincided with Ebert’s opinions only about one-fourth of the time, but that didn’t matter. I loved hearing Ebert talk about movies, I loved how he analyzed a movie’s elements, I loved his sharp wit and I loved the way he so passionately cared about cinema as an art form.
The love-hate banter between Ebert and Siskel was always amusing and sometimes almost frightful. At times, some of their arguments and insults became so nasty they resembled virtual duelists about to pull out their pistols. One time, Siskel poked fun at Ebert’s hefty weight, and Ebert threw a verbal punch aimed at Siskel’s rapidly balding head:
“Gene, has your application for a ZIP code come through yet?”
Siskel gave him a quizzical look.
“Well, you know, Gene, the only thing the astronauts could see on earth from space were Three Mile Island and your forehead.”
Siskel, sadly, died of brain cancer in 1999. The show just wasn’t the same without him, though I still watched it sometimes when it became “Ebert and Roeper.”
Ebert’s many books on movies make for wonderful reading. He watched about 500 movies a year and reviewed about half that many. His most recent Top 10 list, which he made not long before his death, included the following: Citizen Kane (his all-time favorite), Vertigo, La Dolce Vita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Tokyo Story, The General, Aguirre the Wrath of God and The Tree of Life.
Only two of those are on my latest Top 10 list: Citizen Kane and Vertigo. My others are The Rules of the Game, L’Avventura, 8-1/2, Bonnie and Clyde, Casablanca, The Searchers, A Streetcar Named Desire and Pather Panchali. Those are the movies I love to watch again and again.
As Ebert well knew, choosing the 10 greatest movies is a ridiculously impossible task, not to mention that “great” films are not necessarily “favorite” films. While I agree with many of the titles on “Great Films” lists, many of those movies – rightfully and historically great as they are – are certainly not my favorite movies to watch. My “favorites” list would have to include W.C. Field’s It’s a Gift (for my money, the funniest movie ever made), Picnic, National Lampoon European Vacation, Fargo, Pickpocket, A Christmas Story, The Wizard of Oz, The Shawshank Redemption and Detour (an astonishing film noir I recently saw that was filmed in 1935 on a shoestring budget, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). Those never rank among the “great” films, but they are great fun to watch.
Ebert, too, would make lists of his favorite non-great movies, lists of the most unfairly neglected masterpieces and even lists of the worst movies of all time, such as Plan Nine from Outer Space (a real howler if ever there was one). Ebert could be hilarious when he was lambasting terrible movies. One of his books of collected reviews of bad movies is entitled “Your Movie Sucks.”
Ebert said a truly great film should “seem new” at every repeated viewing. That’s as good a definition of great films – and art in general – as I’ve ever heard.
I know Ebert would join me in giving two thumbs up for Detour, the movie I wish everyone would see. It’s a movie he loved, too. I’d never heard of it until a film buff I interviewed for a story told me it was his favorite film noir. Do check it out. It’s available on netflix.com.