Dan Walker Looks Back at the Career of Roger Ebert

By on April 13, 2013

film iconDan Walker on Film





Remembering Roger Ebert: a Q & A

Penn Square Post:  Dan, Roger Ebert died this week. A lot  is being made of his passing. Are you surprised?

I’m saddened by his passing and I’m not surprised at the reaction.  In other words, I’m not surprised so many people feel the same way I do.  Together with Gene Siskel they were an institution.  Movies are something the entire world (except angry, hateful members of a certain American political party that refuses to let go of the 1950’s) loves.  Even the Taliban were discovered to be huge fans of Hollywood (don’t read into that), and those guys hate everything (including animals.  How do you hate animals?).  Siskel & Ebert made talking about movies a pastime and they did it almost out of nowhere.  They raised the profile of the film critic.  They added value and an entirely new dimension to moviegoing.  They became bigger than the movies they reviewed but they never played on that.  I don’t remember the phrase “thumbs up” having any significance (the Old Romans used it to mean “kill him” but, other than that…) until they used it as their signature way to rate movies.  I also don’t know of any more popular and enjoyable “point-counterpoint” pair ever on TV.  It was watching them duke it out that people loved the most.  They were much less entertaining when they agreed on movies.  It was almost a letdown when that happened.  Their interplay was spirited but not mean-spirited.  We all wondered “do they really like each other or really hate each other?”  No one ever liked both equally and it mattered to people who you sided with.  Even casual moviegoers knew who they were and had an opinion about them.  You either liked “the fat one” or “the other one”.  They were the Ali-Frazier of what they did.  Magic-Bird, Connors-Agassi.  I think any sports rivalry analogy is apt.  In no way could either have been even nearly half as impactful as they were together.  I’m sure every other critic at the time was kicking himself/herself for not thinking of pairing up in the same way.  Too late; either you innovate or you don’t.


siskel and EbertAnd talk about an impassioned guy.  I remember how livid Ebert  was in talking about the way he thought David Lynch objectified and abused Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet”.  I don’t think I saw him that worked up before that and he did it so vehemently and articulately it was jarring and made me sit up at attention.  This was beyond his interest in movies, it showed how much he really cared about people.  You can see that excerpt of that particular show on the movie’s DVD, it was that significant.  He always came across as sincere, thoughtful, grounded, clear-thinking and completely lacking in pretense or an agenda.  He spoke plainly yet eloquently.  The more you paid attention to him the more those traits were obvious.  Even listening to his opinion outside the realm of movies was interesting and entertaining.  I think the best and most succinct thing I can say is he is one celebrity I would love to have an extended conversation with (and there are very, very few).


He and Gene voiced themselves (along with Rex Reed and Gene Shalit) in an episode of the animated Jon Lovitz series, “The Critic” and were wonderful.  It’s not that it was a great show (although it’s one of only two box sets I’ve purchased, the other being “The Godfather” trilogy) or that the episode was necessarily exceptional but it was fun to see them outside the context of their show, basically making fun of themselves.  I watch that episode at least once a year.


Ebert 2Then when his health problems were made public, he became a different public figure entirely or, rather, he became a more amazing version of himself.  When I first heard of his jaw cancer and his reaction to it, feeling sorry for him was completely out of the question.  He was more determined than ever to do what he did and live a full life.  People dealing with cancer are often called “brave” but what he did transcended any way anyone ever dealt with such a serious illness that I can remember.  When you heard him talk about it or read what he said about it all you felt was positive energy with no room for any downer emotion.  It was almost confusing in how unique his perspective was.  You felt inspired but not in the way someone with an illness is inspiring but in a way a successful coach or great teacher can be inspiring.  And the inspiration never plateaued; every time you came across him in interviews he just seemed more energized and energetic and you had to feed off it and be held in amazement.  It defied every standard you associate with extreme illness and did so to an extreme.  A Kryptonian extreme.**


In essence, Roger Ebert was the exact opposite of Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian and any other shamelessly self-promotional, bloated sham of a celebrity we’re constantly being subjected to.


Penn Square Post:   Did he have much impact on you at any time?

siskel and ebert2Especially since his passing, I don’t know if I’m objective enough to say whether or not he was impactful for me other than how I described his show with Gene and how he dealt with his illness.  I guess that’s your answer.  Yes, he was impactful.


I think I need to point out I don’t remember reading any entire review Ebert wrote.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t do it, I just don’t remember. He obviously wrote well but he was much more entertaining on TV and  I guess I saw him more as an entertainer than a film reviewer. That never occurred to me until just now.  I pretty much only know his opinion on movies from “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies”.  That was enough for me.***


Penn Square Post:   What was his legacy?

I have no idea how to answer this question.  I guess the answer is covered by the rest of the responses to your questions.


Penn Square Post:  What are the hallmarks of a good film review? Does he make the grade most of the time?

A film review is an opinion and any opinion that’s supported with grounded, reasonable, level-headed thinking makes for a good one.  I stopped watching and reading movie reviews years ago because I decided going into movies with as few preconceived notions as possible would maximize the movie going experience but, based on when I did read/watch him, yes, I liked what he had to say and thought he always stated his case well.*


Penn Square Post:   Do film reviewers still have an important role to fill?  What is it? Is the changing nature of journalism and/or the film business having an impact on that role? 

ebert and siskel 2Reviewers have almost no importance for me personally other than I use the aggregate score of their reviews on Rottentomatoes as one of several factors to decide whether nor not I’ll see a movie.  It’s the only quantitative one.  I don’t know if their roles are “important” but it’s nice for people to have an opinion they either connect with or don’t connect with to gauge their potential interest (or lack thereof) in a movie.


I don’t know what the changing nature of journalism and/or the film business is, other than more and more of it is in digital form and is disseminated more quickly and more people can take an active part.  And there’s more of it.  And it’s changing (I’m hesitant to use the word “progressing”) faster.


Back to Roger:

In thinking about it , and I could easily be caught up in the current popular flood of sentiment, but Roger Ebert, in his own way, rather, in his own TWO ways, in his passing, has attained legendary status.  If Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — both were good at pretty much one thing for a very short period of time and were (reputedly) really mean-spirited substance abusers**** — can be legends, Ebert is a shoo-in.  There is no way anyone who paid attention to him will forget him and what people will remember about him is nothing but positive and inspiring.


*Except I think he liked “Footloose”, which I couldn’t bring myself to watch.  I have a problem with movies where a movie’s main character’s point is “nobody’s gonna stop me from dancing…NOBODY!”.  And, yes, I understand the dancing was a metaphor.


** That’s a reference to Superman, not the Periodic Table.


ebert3*** The only movie reviewers I read consistently at any point were Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, Ken Turan of the LA Times and A.O. Scott of the New York Times. I read their columns when I lived in their respective cities. Lasalle impacted my view on films more than any single reviewer (I don’t like to think of them as “critics”).  I repeatedly tried reading Joe Bob Briggs because his reviews were in the Sunday Chronicle/Examiner but I never understood them or his writing style.  I read the reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and The Daily Variety (Todd McCarthy, who is now at THR) when I worked in the film industry but that was more required reading than it was out of my personal interest.


**** My speech teacher at San Francisco State had been a roadie for Big Brother & The Holding Company and didn’t hide his intense resentment when he talked about how Joplin – between swigs of Southern Comfort – went out of her way to abuse the other band members and the crew.



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4 comments on “Dan Walker Looks Back at the Career of Roger Ebert

  1. Bruce on said:

    I appreciated reading Dan’s comments on Roger Ebert. His point of view was anticipated by his habitual readers and unique (as usual).

  2. John Necci on said:

    A very fine tribute.

  3. Dennis on said:

    Another passing of someone who’s memory, years ago, brings good thoughts to me as I was younger, in school, and Siskel and Ebert brought the industry’s movies to my home, and actually made me think about how the art is more powerful than what I used to see……..pictures moving. I went to see “My dinner with Andre” because of how they brought it to my attention. I never forgot that and the movie actually opened my eyes up to meeting with people from long ago.

  4. Loved what you said about watching his show and seeing him more of an entertainer than a reviewer. And you are so right about Ebert being the opposite of the “celebrities” we are subjected to on a daily basis. He made his way into our homes with intelligent commentary that any of the Kardashians would have to dust off their dictionaries to follow. I was a big fan of “The Critic” too! Wish they made more television like that.

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