April 4 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert.
Ebert “came into” my life at the perfect time. As a child, I began immersing myself in movies, and just a few years later, I became equally obsessed with film criticism, going to the library and checking out volumes of work by James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Stanley Kauffmann. Shortly after that, “Sneak Previews,” the first national version of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s long-running movie-review TV show, premiered on PBS. Agee et al., while obviously articulate experts in their field, seemed to exist on some vague Mt. Olympus of film criticism. Seeing the equally articulate Siskel and Ebert on TV made the concept of critiquing movies more accessible to me.
Many filmgoers are often very quick to dismiss any movie critic whose opinions counter their own. I always felt just the opposite towards Ebert. His criticism was so compelling and heartfelt, he was fun to read even when you disagreed with him.
Nowadays, anybody who can set up their own blog can automatically designate themselves as movie critics. (And yes, I’m as guilty as anyone.) Ebert worked his way up through the ranks at the Chicago Sun-Times, eventually becoming one of America’s most-read and -seen critics, and deservedly so.
In the ‘90s, Ebert got an account on the then-in-vogue Internet platform provider CompuServe, and I corresponded with him fairly frequently. I’m not trying to say we were close friends, but I would often remark about some online comment he had made, and nearly as often, he would politely answer me.
At one point, Ebert did a Sunday-morning online and print column titled “The Movie Answer Man,” where he would answer questions from readers, and he sometimes fielded some of my queries to him. (One of my questions even made it onto Page 157 of Ebert’s book “Questions from the Movie Answer Man.”)
For anyone who wasn’t there, it’s hard to understand how much effect and influence a well-written critic had on fervent moviegoers. But when Roger Ebert passed away in 2013 (following his old partner, Gene Siskel, in 1999), it seemed as though a huge part of the old guard of great movie criticism had slipped away as well.