Friday, April 5, 2013

Two Thumbs Up

Roger Ebert once said, "No good movie is too long."

But what about a good life?

Ebert's was cut short, and it would definitely rank a "thumbs up."

Ebert, who was just a movie reviewer the same way Edison was just the guy who invented the light bulb, is gone, another whose battle with cancer was fought bravely but ultimately lost. Cancer never was much for sentiment.

Ebert was 70 when he slipped away this week, and if you think that was a full life, you're wrong. Not that Ebert didn't live it to the fullest.

Before Roger Ebert, movie reviews were relegated to a couple newspaper columns. Sometimes they'd find their way into a magazine. The movie reviewer was to the stage reviewer the same way the Toledo Mud Hens are to the Detroit Tigers.

Then Ebert started gabbing into a camera, bouncing in his chair as he either railed at or damned a film with praise, and the movie review was never the same.

It was unheard of, really, to watch a movie review, before Ebert began laying them down on videotape. It was considered folly, like listening to a book might have been. But we do that now as a matter of course.

Ebert's "At the Movies", especially when he, as the film reviewer for the Chicago Sun Times, teamed with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, became a national sensation in the 1980s. It was Ebert who came up the now iconic "thumbs up, thumbs down" method of approval or disapproval.

People now say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as part of their daily lexicon. They didn't do so prior to Ebert and his TV show slipping it into their consciousness.

But again, Ebert wasn't just a movie reviewer, even if he was one of the industry's most respected ones.

He was an author, penning many books about films, which he loved. He was a philanthropist. Maybe most importantly, Ebert was a husband, a father, and a fine man devoid of what Burton Cummings once wrote was "silly human pride."

Had Ebert been too proud, he would have become a recluse when the damned cancer robbed him of his speech and his jaw, irreversibly changing his physical appearance. But Ebert kept putting himself out there, letting his picture be taken, damning his fate, as if to tell cancer, "You can change the way I look but you'll never change me as a person."

Yes, the movie reviews stuck to us. Ebert's reviews were ones that did indeed impact a film's box office, because they were on television, which no movie reviewer dare tried, Gene Shalit and Rex Reed notwithstanding. I'm not talking about a three-minute segment on the Today Show.

 

Ebert made a TV show out of his movie reviews, and it wasn't considered hubris or an ego thing. How could it have been? Ebert was on TV but he wasn't all that photogenic. He was a tubby, round man with thick glasses, big lips and who wore sweaters. But despite TV being a visual medium, it was what Ebert said that drew us in, not how he looked.

Many, of course, tried the movie reviews on TV thing since Roger Ebert, but none came close to replicating Ebert's (and Siskel's) popularity and influence. It would have been a major upset had anyone done so.

So was Roger Ebert a ground breaker? A trail blazer? Is his legacy secure?

Well, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the ironic thing is, his is more deserved than some of those who have them, who acted in the very films that Ebert panned and praised.

Ebert never talked above our heads. He didn't have the arrogance of Reed, the zaniness of Shalit, or the pomposity of so many Broadway reviewers.

Who can't relate to this, for example? The words are Ebert's.

"If a movie is really working, you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked. You are having a vicarious experience. You are identifying, in one way or another, with the people on the screen."

Roger Ebert, you get two thumbs up.

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