My Hero, Roger Ebert

by Jeff Mitchell - All of us look up to a few heroes, and, unfortunately, I lost two of mine within the past eight months.

My father, Don Mitchell, unexpectedly past away last September, and movie critic Roger Ebert died on Thursday, April 4.

On September 7, 2012, I owned the unenviable task of delivering my dad’s eulogy, but just days before, I struggled with how to structure my 20 minute talk in front of family and friends.

On a plane ride to the east coast, I stared at a blank notebook, took a nap, woke up, glanced down at an empty lined-sheet of paper, and closed my eyes again.

This went on for a couple hours during my flight from Paris to Philadelphia, and suddenly, it occurred to me: I’ll approach this tribute to my father like a movie review.

Very quickly - using a different mindset - the words flowed from my pen.

I jotted down the highlights of my father’s life, his beliefs, common themes (which ran over his 68 years on this planet), and life lessons he tried to communicate to those he met in passing or on a daily basis.

Although presenting my father’s eulogy was one of the most difficult moments of my life, I found remarkably easy to write it.

I can thank Roger Ebert for latter.

I owe my love of (and writing about) movies to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

As a semi-directionless kid, I turned to movies for solace, escape and reprieve, and Siskel and Ebert became my guide with their weekly analysis of the new releases about to grace the local movie theatres.

Movies quickly became my passion, and for the past 30 or so years, I’ve loyally followed Roger Ebert’s television shows, radio interviews, Chicago Sun-Times column, and Twitter account.

Since 2008, I write my own movie reviews, and right now, I’m sitting at my dining room table on Friday morning and trying to contemplate another huge void in my world.

Like my father’s death, rather than focus on the negative, I’d rather embrace life.

So, I thought I would rerelease an article I wrote on June 18, 2011 which recognized Roger Ebert’s 69th birthday.

Today, this is my small way to celebrate his rich, full and influential life.

"Happy Birthday, Roger Ebert!" - by Jeff Mitchell, June 18, 2011, Examiner.com

T

oday, June 18th, is Roger Ebert’s 69th birthday!

Happy Birthday Mr. Ebert, and thank you for all of your hard work on helping millions upon millions of people over your 40-plus-year career steer clear of bad films and guide us towards those rare gems we may not have otherwise

considered.

Beginning with his show, “Sneak Previews” (which he shared with the late-Gene Siskel), Roger Ebert helped shape my love for movies at a young age

As a 10 or 11-year-old kid, I first stumbled upon it one day after getting up from the family room couch to turn the channel knob on our 19-inch RCA color TV.

I don’t remember what films Siskel and Ebert reviewed that day, but I do recall how cool I thought it was that two guys offered their candid opinions on movies “from the balcony.”

I mean, my buddies and I talked about movies too...at our elementary school cafeteria.

My friends and I completely agreed Han Solo might be the coolest person in the universe, but argued relentlessly about what actually happened to Obi-Wan Kenobi towards the end of “Star Wars” (1977).

Siskel and Ebert bantered, agreed and disagreed about movies too, but on a weekly television show.

How do I get THAT job?

Of course, I never heard of most of the films they reviewed - like “Atlantic City” (1980) which they mention Susan Sarandon’s performance opposite Burt Lancaster or “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) where they gush over Linda Hunt playing a man - but Siskel and Ebert opened up a whole new world I didn’t know existed.

As a kid, on the rare occasion when we did see the same film, I generally disagreed with them.

I mean, how could they not like “Halloween II” (1981)?

I thought it was very scary, and Michael Myers was back in movie theatres!

Who wouldn’t like that?

On the other hand, Siskel and Ebert seemed pretty smart, so I figured I needed keep paying attention to these two critics from Chicago.

Around the same time, their show moved from PBS to cable-syndication.

The name changed to “At the Movies” (and eventually “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert”), but the show’s format was essentially the same.

Finishing up elementary school, struggling through middle school and trying to find my way through high school - whatever insecurities, growing pains I toiled through, either real or imagined - the movies were my reprieve.

I wanted to watch every studio-released film in the movie theatres just like Siskel and Ebert, but due to a lack of excessive funds or an easy route of transportation to the local cinema, that was a near-impossible dream for an ordinary teenager.

So, I was thankful Siskel and Ebert were always close by with their educated and experienced analysis on the latest Hollywood pictures.

I enjoyed them both, but found myself agreeing with Ebert more often.

Whether his style was more soft-spoken or more approachable, Roger Ebert felt like that well-liked and well-informed uncle you always gravitated towards at family functions or holidays.

I trusted him (and still do).

Also, like your favorite uncle, he’s not afraid of his comedic-side.

My single favorite Roger Ebert-television review was of 1998’s “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.”

He hated that movie.

Ebert correctly stated the title of the film was all wrong.

He pointed out the film is a sequel of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997), but takes place in the following summer, so the correct name should have been something like, “I Still Know What You Did Two Summers Ago.”

He added the dim-witted co-eds thought Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, while the correct answer is Brasilia, and was surprised they even knew Brazil was a country.

Siskel laughed as Ebert ranted about how he completely wasted about an hour and a half of his life that he will never get back, and - between the millions of people that will pay to see this mindless film - a vast, countless number of hours will be completely lost forever in the human time pool.

Siskel and Ebert - and later Ebert and (Richard) Roeper - became American icons and the authorities on film criticism.

They regularly appeared on late night talk shows, and I also remember some spirited and memorable Ebert and Roeper stops on “The Howard Stern Show” as well.

According to his website, Roger Ebert has been the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and is the only movie critic to have a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

He’s written over 20 books including “I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie”, “The Great Movies” (volumes I - III) and has a new book - to be released later this year - called, “Life Itself: A Memoir.”

He has a new syndicated movie review show called, “Ebert Presents At the Movies”, reviews countless films on his website and is a very active member on his Twitter account.

As of today, he’s tweeted over 21,000 times from his Twitter page, and that same Ebert-sense of humor and outspokenness translates to this social medium as well.

“Was ‘Thelma and Louise’ ever shown in Saudi Arabia?” - June 17, 2011

“We don’t need Big Brother if we have Facebook.” - June 17, 2011

“It gets worse: John Edwards wanted millions from a 101-year-old supporter.” - June 16, 2011

Roger Ebert - after all of these years - is working more now than ever, and we are the better for it, and he helped inspire this ordinary kid - since the early 1980s and in need of direction - to look at films (and eventually write about them) with a critical eye.

Thank you Mr. Ebert and Happy Birthday!

Oh, I caught “Halloween II” - for the first time in decades - on cable within the last year or so.

Ya know, Roger Ebert was right. It wasn’t very good.

Image credits: Adams McMeel Publishing

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