Roger Ebert is dead at the age of 70, so the Chicago Sun-Times tells us.
His death is a milestone for me. It dates me as someone who grew up is the area of the venn diagram where two generations overlap — the Gen-Xers and the Millennials. For many of us, Roger Ebert wasn’t merely a film critic. He was the film critic (along with Gene Siskel) that determined what was good and bad in the theatre.
I remember the first time I watched a Roger Ebert film review. It was 1990 and Home Alone starring child prodigy Macaulay Culkin had just come to the theatre in my home town. I told my dad that I wanted to see the film and he did what any other red-blooded American man would do before taking his nine-year old kid to see a movie — he watched Siskel and Ebert’s review.
They gave it a thumbs down.
Ebert thought the entire premise of the film was silly. He said the plot missed an opportunity to convey the ensuing terror of a scenario in which an eight-year old kid was left at home alone. I remember my dad looking at me and asking, “Are you SURE you really want to see this movie?” I remained steadfast in my film selection and we ended up seeing the movie anyways.
But Roger Ebert could have blown it for me that night. And I have held a grudge ever since for that particular review. How could he and Siskel have missed the genius of Home Alone?
- It is the greatest Christmas film about a kid who is home alone in a suburb of Chicago of all time.
- It made $476,684,675 at the box office.
- It spawned a sequel that literally recycled the plot, characters and sight gags, changed only the setting (New York, not Chicago…Totally different), and still made $358,994,850 at the box office.
- And, it spawned a third installment that was terrible, as well as a fourth installment that went straight to video. Not DVD. Video.
Despite my clear difference of opinion on the merits of Home Alone, I still turned to Roger Ebert’s movie reviews before watching nearly every movie I have ever seen. He was my movie litmus test. Conversations always seemed to follow this evaluation sequence:
- Ebert gave it one star – we can rent it during that boring weekend in November.
- Ebert gave it two stars – we may need to rent it at blockbuster this weekend.
- Ebert gave it three stars – we should plan a date night to go watch it in the theater.
- Ebert gave it four stars – I don’t care if we have to face traffic and high school kids texting, I WILL SEE THIS MOVIE.
- Siskel and Ebert gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up – There is no discussion to be had . . . we are watching this film at least four times in the next two days.
And that was the thing about Roger Ebert. He was an irreplaceable cog in the film experience process. He was the kind of writer that you could learn from even if you disagreed with him. Whether he ultimately liked or hated a particular film was not as important to me the fact that he reviewed them. I always knew when a bad film was worth watching or a good film was worth avoiding based on his reviews. This was, perhaps, his legacy with my generation.
In reality, Home Alone is kind of a silly movie. And that is okay for me to admit now because I am comfortable with the fact that I enjoy silly movies. I feel the same way about Billy Madison, Tommy Boy, The Wedding Singer, and Dumb and Dumber. Not coincidentally, Ebert gave thumbs down to all of them. But by the late 90s, I knew that an Ebert thumbs down to a comedy meant that I would like it. And I needed to know that before purchasing a movie ticket.
I am going to miss Roger Ebert and his reviews. There is a great void in my film watching experience. Sure, other writers can tell me their take. Rotten Tomatoes can help me gauge popular perception. But nothing will replace the functional role of Roger Ebert and his thumbs.
Here’s two thumbs up for your life Roger.