Last night I was saddened, like so many others, to learn of Roger Ebert's death. I know his health had been failing over the past few years and recent pictures of him were nearly unrecognizable. As I cried, I realized that he had a tremendous influence over the trajectory of my life. If Andrew Sarris, the film critic whom, in my eyes, provided an academic foundation for studying film giving me the opportunity to write about film, then Ebert and Siskel affected my personal experience in watching movies.
I have always loved movies. If you know me at all, you know that about me. I remember seeing Grease when it first came out in the theaters in 1978; I was 7 years old and so excited. I think that was really the beginning of my love for the movies. There were times in high school when I had seen all the movies at the movie theater at least once and a couple of them twice. Some of my fondest memories with my friends have been at movies. Jane and I saw many, many movies together, but I Raising Arizona was one of my favorites. We quoted lines from that for years (I still do!). John and I saw Batman the summer of 1989 after much hype and the long movie, we had a good discussion. I think one of the best things for me was the ride home after a movie. It was about 20 minutes door to door from the theater to home, which was the perfect time to discuss the movie we had just seen. Often my companion and I agreed with the overall assessment of the film (thumbs up or down), though not always. And many times we even said, "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down".
We got that from Ebert and Siskel. It was always a treat to catch them on a Saturday on WGN. At the Movies was a great title. I was always disappointed when I had been looking forward to a movie's release and it got two thumbs down. I usually saw the movie anyway and would either agree, or more often disagree, with the film experts. Even though they could not hear my opinions, I often felt like I was a part of a dialogue with them, that we were all discussing the film. My favorite times watching the show were definitely when the two of them did not agree. I loved the arguing, sometimes bickering, about how the other was mistaken, the film was good (or bad), the actor stunk (or was brilliant). The banter between Siskel and Ebert, and later between Ebert and Roper, is what fueled my desire to forever discuss films.
At one time, I wanted to be a film critic. I wanted to share my insights with the world. But that never panned out for me. When I began my academic career at North Dakota State University, there was no major for "film critic" or even any film courses. And that was okay because NDSU didn't exactly work out for me at that time.
When I started at Old Dominion University, I embraced English Literature. I loved it. Even then, most of my major papers compared the novel or short story to the film adaptation. Which is when I was introduced to Sarris (and many other film scholars). The Humanities Institute was a perfect match for me and the director, Dana, was eager to support my work in films. I wrote papers on several films in graduate school, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Bend it Like Beckham, Volver, and of course the entire James Bond collection. I was elated to find a way to make my academic career blend with my love of dissecting movies...a love that I tie directly to Ebert and Siskel.
So there it is, a television show influenced my life. I'm sure I'm not the only one. As I watched last nights episode of Project Runway, I immediately connected the discussions Heidi Klum and the judges have with Ebert and Siskel. They agree, they disagree, they discuss. I choked up a bit.
I am not a person to dwell on what happens to us after we die. I sure hope that it is good. I feel that if I live a good life, whatever happens after I die will reflect that. But, even I see Roger Ebert sitting next to Gene Siskel sharing popcorn and discussing the new Lone Ranger flick...I just wish I knew if it were thumbs up or down.