I awoke at 6:45am last Friday and a text message was waiting for me from a good friend.  It said “EVERT’S DEAD! :o” followed by “Ebert!”  The delivery may not have been perfect but the shock was still tough to take.  The world’s most notable film critic, Roger Ebert, had passed away at the age of 70.

My first job was in a video store back in 1995 and that’s where my love of movies began.  Within a year, I was grading all the films I’d seen and keeping the details in a spreadsheet.  I’m still using that same spreadsheet today.

Back then, I didn’t have access to the internet.  The only film critic I read regularly was Des Partridge in The Courier Mail.  I’d also check out reviews in magazines like Who Weekly when I found the time.

While my access to the world was limited, I still knew the names Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  They were regular guests on The Late Show With David Letterman and their quotes could be found on many film posters and in many trailers.

Since 1986, they were the two guys who headlined a successful television show in which they reviewed the latest movies each week (similar to what Margaret and David do today in Australia with At The Movies).  Their grading system was simple – a film either got the thumbs up or the thumbs down.  There was no in-between.

I never got to see their show (since it didn’t air here in Australia) but once the internet finally arrived in my household, I was able to read transcripts of their on-air reviews at a particular website.  I even kept clippings of my favourite Siskel & Ebert reviews in a scrapbook (I’m a nerd, I do realise that).

These guys were the pinnacle of film criticism.  While you could argue that other critics were better writers, these guys were the most influential.  They had a sizeable audience and hence could do huge things for a small film.  I remember reading their raves for Fargo back in 1996.  Ebert called it the best film of the year.  Siskel said the same of The Ice Storm in 1997.  It’s possible many would not have heard of these two remarkable films if not for the glowing praise of Siskel and Ebert.

Sadly, Gene Siskel died in 1999.  I remember reading a news story stating that he was taking a short break from the show to recover after surgery to remove a brain tumour.  He died a few weeks later at the age of 53.  It was sad news and at that year’s Academy Awards, host Whoopi Goldberg paid a nice tribute by raising her hand in the air and giving him the thumbs up.

The television show carried on with Ebert using guest critics each week.  I’ve watched a few clips on Youtube and I’m particularly fond of this one from late 1999 – see here.  It features Ebert staunchly defending Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia – a film I regard as one of the greatest of all time.

Ebert was never afraid to be forthright and honest.  This video is popular on Youtube and shows Ebert voicing/yelling his opinion to refute someone else in the audience at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.  There was also a humorous incident at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival when Ebert called The Brown Bunny the worst film to ever screen at Cannes.  Director Vincent Gallo responded by calling Ebert “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.”  Ebert’s retort – “one day I will be thin but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

Ebert battled thyroid cancer for a number of years and in 2006, nearly died during surgery.  He lost the ability to speak and would require a feeding tube to be able to eat and drink.  It didn’t slow him down though.  While he no longer appeared on his television show, Ebert kept churning out reviews for The Chicago Sun-Times, where he had been the film critic since 1967.  In fact, he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism back in 1975.  All of these reviews were available online and his website had a permanent place in my Favourites folder.  If I ever wondered if a film was any good, the first review I’d read would be that of Roger Ebert.

In 2011, I attended the Toronto Film Festival for the first time.  On the Wednesday afternoon of the second week, I heard that Roger Ebert was doing a book signing for his recently released autobiography, Life Itself.  I cleared my calendar, got a taxi uptown and made sure I was there.  I would finally get the chance to see my “idol” in person.  I listened to his stories for about an hour (told through his wife, Chaz) and bought a copy of his book which he later autographed for me.  It was one of the highlights of my trip and the book will forever sit on the shelf in my living room.

Roger Ebert was very active on Twitter and amassed over 800,000 followers.  That’s not bad for someone who critiques film and only further highlights his influence and popularity.  Early last week, he announced he was scaling back the number of reviews while he was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer in his hip.  In his final blog, he finished by saying “Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”  Then came the sad news of his passing last Friday morning.  His final review was posted over the weekend – for Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

Twitter has been flooded with tributes and retrospectives.  President Obama said that “The movies won’t be the same without Roger”.  Albert Brooks noted that “the importance of Siskel/Ebert to independent filmmakers like myself cannot be overstated”.  Fellow critic Leonard Maltin said “he had indomitable spirit and was one of the gutsiest people I knew.”

While I never knew Roger Ebert personally, he has been a big influence in my life.  I’ve always been jealous of his reviews and they’ve made me strive to be a more insightful critic and a better writer.  His legacy will live on and his past reviews will always be there to read.  It’s just sad to think that we’ll never get to hear his thoughts on any future releases.  I’m particularly moved by this photo of Roger’s favourite chair at a theatrette in Chicago.

There was so much more to admire about Roger Ebert (such as the way he founded his own film festival) and I could write another 10,000 words but alas, time is pressing.  I need to keep following his footsteps and do the best I can to promote the movies I love.  RIP Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert At The 2011 Toronto Film Festival
Roger Ebert signing autographs at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
Roger Ebert At The 2011 Toronto Film Festival
Roger Ebert telling stories at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
An Autographed Copy Of Life Itself
My autographed copy of Roger Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself.