Putting into words what Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert meant to me is impossible. They are the reason I love film. They are the reason I love writing.
I grew up in Pisgah, Alabama. A pretty small town by any standards. The closest movie theatre was thirty minutes away, and the closest art house theatre was a couple of hours away, minimum. I had an advanced movie watching mind from a young age. I was the seven-year-old kid watching Ordinary People and Withnail and I and loving every second of them. I lived at my local video store and took home stacks of movies, every genre imaginable.
I watched Siskel & Ebert every single week, without fail. They were television friends who introduced me to new films, engaged in lively discussions about films I wanted to see and always stood out because of their immense love and appreciation and respect for the cinematic medium. They took film personally because, in so many ways, it is a very personal thing. Critics today seem to lack that.
When Gene Siskel died, a part of me died. I was wrecked. I loved them both so close to equally, but I think I most identified with Siskel. I don’t know what to even say now that Roger Ebert has joined his friend in the balcony in the sky. Film criticism has died along with him. There are no giants left in that industry. Ebert was the last…the original. I honestly don’t know that I care to read another review again. What’s the point? They won’t be nearly as eloquent, honest or insightful.
I am sad that Roger Ebert spent the last years of his life unable to speak, but so thankful that this disability allowed him to do some of his most insightful and prolific writing. I think it made him a better writer, if that was even possible. I am sad that his attempt to re-kindle an honest and intelligent televised criticism program was met not with enthusiasm but with bewilderment – there’s just no room for intelligent and honest criticism anymore. I am sad that he had so much in the works and will not get to see it into fruition. I’m hopeful that his amazing wife will see it through. But most of all I am sad that I won’t have a reason to visit RogerEbert.com on Wednesday evenings at 11 p.m. to check his newest reviews for the week. I have done this, without fail, since his reviews started publishing online all those years ago.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) has been working on a documentary about Roger Ebert with Martin Scorsese. I was so excited to hear Ebert’s review on the documentary about his life. Unfortunately for Mr. James and Mr. Scorsese, their footnote on the film will now be a sad one. Rest in peace, Roger – for me, forever, the balcony is most definitely closed.
~ Billy Ray Brewton
Billy Ray Brewton is founder and former artistic director of Birmingham’s Theatre Downtown, a non-profit performing arts company dedicated to exposing Birmingham audiences to cutting-edge contemporary works, established classics with a twist and original works from aspiring playwrights. In 2013 he also launched Glass Half Pictures, a company specializing in works for stage and screen.