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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
CNN Film: "Life Itself"
Aired January 25, 2015 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ROGER EBERT, FILM CRITIC: We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.
And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
STEVE JAMES, DOCUMENTARIAN (voice-over): Exactly five months before his death, Roger and Chaz and I met to plan the beginning of an ambitious schedule of filming, including interviews and critic screenings. Roger mentioned in passing that his hip was sore. The very next day, he entered the hospital.
EBERT: Somehow I got a hairline fracture to the femur bone. I didn't fall and have no idea how it happened. It's bloody painful.
This is my seventh time at rehab. Show Steve the new chair. It reclines.
JAMES: So, Roger, did you not pay your insurance premiums and so you didn't get the chair until now?
EBERT: Steve, I'll do the jokes here.
JAMES (voice-over): Although Roger had supported my films over the years, this film was the first chance to really get to know him.
EBERT: Steve, shoot yourself in the mirror.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There he is.
CAROL: I'm Carol, I'm Roger's assistant for over 20 years, Roger and Chaz.
And "Zero Dark," something is winning all the awards, Roger, want to know the big award. And the Bears lost.
My daily -- what? Briefings.
CAROL: OK, Roger.
And then, Mayor Daley's nephew went to court today. Remember for the Kunzman (ph) thing that "The Sun-Times" really uncovered?
EBERT (voice-over): I always worked on newspapers. There was a persistent need, not only to write, but to publish. In grade school, I wrote and published "The Washington Street News," which I solemnly delivered to neighbors in Urbana, Illinois, as if it existed independently of me.
At "The News Gazette," a Linotype operator sent it in lead, "By Roger Ebert." I was electrified.
And I went home, you could take a stamp pad and put your byline on everything. My parents finally had to take it away from me. Everything was "By Roger Ebert."
And I went to work full time for the local newspaper when I was 15 versus a sports writer. General assignment, working late, being there with the newspaper men back in the '50s. It was unspeakably romantic. I can write. I just always could. On the other hand, I flunked French five times.
In the spring of 1960, I announced I wanted to go to Harvard, like Jack Kennedy and Thomas Wolfe. "Boy, there's no money to send you to Harvard," Daddy said.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, to provide knowledge for a better tomorrow.
EBERT (voice-over): I would go to my hometown university. I wouldn't be an electrician like my father. During my years at Illinois, I spent more time working on "The Daily Illini" than studying. It was in every sense a real newspaper, published five days a week on an ancient Goss rotary press that made the building tremble.
As editor, I was a case study: tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he was. But it worked because he could back it up. It was intimidating to the members of the staff because he was like a mature writer at that time.
Now here, when those four children were killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, there was a huge protest around the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Four hundred students gathered on the university quadrangle to protest the bombing of an Alabama Sunday school -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Roger was the voice of outrage on this campus.
He started off his column by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, who said to George Wallace, "The blood of these innocent children is on your hands." That ended the quote.
Then Roger began his column by saying, "That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood, it is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away."
That began a column written by a 21-year-old guy and he said it better than anybody said it all week.
EBERT (voice-over): Chicago was the great city over the horizon. We read Chicago's newspapers and listened to its powerful AM radio stations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it's midnight here in Chicago --
EBERT (voice-over): Long after midnight, I listened to Jack Agha, broadcasting live.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- in the Chez Lounge in the world famous Chez Paree.
EBERT (voice-over): Chatting with Martin and Lewis or Rosemary Clooney. I'd been accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in English by the University of Chicago, but I needed a job.
I got a part-time job at "The Sun-Times" and then five months later, the film critic retired and they gave me the job. I did not apply for it.
Newspaper film critics had been interchangeable. Some papers had bylines that different people wrote under, for example, "The Tribune" had May Tenay (ph) and that could be whoever went to the movies that day because May Tenay (ph) really spelled out matinee. I was at that time the youngest daily film critic in America and it was a real good time to be a movie critic.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BONNIE AND CLYDE")
"BONNIE": Armed robbery.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies.
"BONNIE": But you wouldn't have the gumption to use it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): A work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking.
"BONNIE": Hey, what's your name anyhow?
"CLYDE": Clyde Barrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): And astonishingly beautiful.
"BONNIE": Pleased to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn't mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it's about us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger was the most fascinating writer I ever came across. Anybody that's ever seen him work, he could knock out a full thought-out movie review in 30 minutes, fast and furious.
RICK KOGAN, CHICAGO NEWSPAPER MAN: There was so many reporters that formed easy, quick friendships because they were smart, they were good writers, they were literate and they could tell a good story in a saloon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): O'Rourke's (ph) was our stage and we displayed our personas there nightly. It was a shabby, street corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago's Old Town stopped being a tourist haven.
When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling. For many years, I drank there more or less every night when I was in town. So did a lot of people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all sat at the same place. Newspaper guys here, (INAUDIBLE) in the middle, the sorty (ph) staff at the very end of the bar.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger has always been attracted to weird types, I mean, you should see some of the women that he's hauled into O'Rourke's over the years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back in the old days, Roger had probably the worst taste in women of any man I've ever known. They were either gold diggers, opportunists or psychos.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I met Roger one time with a woman that looked like a young Linda Ronstadt. Then when she was gone from the table briefly, I said who is that?
And he said she's a hired lady.
And I said, a hooker?
And he said, now you take care of her when I leave.
And he left town and anyway...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger, he used to hang from the lamppost at the end of the bar. When he got going, Roger was one of the finest storytellers that I have ever come across.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger was good at dishing, but he could also take it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm the fat guy that has to learn how to take fat stuff. I mean, Roger could hold his own with all of them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody kind of says that like deep down, he's a nice guy. He is a nice guy, but he's not that nice.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not that nice.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I discovered there was nothing like drinking with the crowd to make you a member. I copied the idealism and cynicism of the reporters, I spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Studs wasn't a Chicagoan. Nelson Allman (ph) wasn't born here, Saul Bellow wasn't born here. But there's a certain kind of Chicago character that Roger really came to believe that he was.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bratcher was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director. And he brought in the cast and the scenario and he orchestrated it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last week he was drinking, I even realized that there was a serious problem going on. Watching him when he pulled out that night in front of O'Rourke's and almost ran into the North Avenue bus.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember being in the drugstore that was on the corner there one morning. And Roger came in and he looked like absolute hell.
I'm like, are you OK? What's the matter?
(INAUDIBLE). Can you come have a drink with me?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said to me one time and I don't think he'll regard this as a betrayal, that he would walk home late at night after O'Rourke's had closed and he would wish he was dead.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I found it almost impossible once I started to stop after one or two. I paid a price in hangovers. Without hangovers, it's possible that I would still be drinking. I would also be unemployed, unmarried and probably dead.
In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. The hot sun streaming through the windows, I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn't take it anymore. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The next time I saw Roger Ebert, he was in AA.
EBERT: I was drinking very heavily.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): When I decided to out myself as a recovering alcoholic, I hadn't taken a drink for 31 years. And since my first AA meeting I attended, I've never wanted to.
Since surgery in July of 2006, I haven't been able to drink at all or eat or speak. Unless I go insane and start pouring booze into my G tube, I believe I'm reasonably safe.
JAMES (voice-over): By the time I got home from this shoot, there was an e-mail waiting for me.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did we get it?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): One day in the spring of 1967, I noticed "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" playing at The Biograph on Lincoln Avenue.
The posters displayed improbably buxom women and I was inside in a flash. And that was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer.
In 1969, the 20th Century-Fox Studio invited Meyer to the lot for an interview. They owned the rights to the title "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and offered him the title unattached to any story. Meyer offered me the screenwriting job and I fell into a delirious adventure.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The most impossible question for me to answer is how on Earth did Roger Ebert write "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" or be interested in writing such a script? Or be involved with Russ Meyer? I have no answer.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he love about Russ' films, do you think?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boobs.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fact that there were large-breasted women involved probably was a plus.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you want to make love?
Then let's make love.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, in L.A.
Where is that? UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Meyer wanted everything in the screen
play except a kitchen sink. The movie he explained, would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose of the ofttimes nightmarish world of show business.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had to review for the "Chicago Sun-Times" and I think I gave it three stars because Roger was my friend. And somewhere deep in the piece said this is a new rating system, 10 stars, so this gets three out of 10.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is my happening and it freaks me out.
RICHARD CORLISS, "TIME" (voice-over): I reviewed the film in "National Review" and listed it as one of the 10 great films of the 1960s. It was funny, it had a pulse that raced past Howard Hawks films from the '40s but with a wild who gives a shit air. It was perfect for the late '60s.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're a groovy boy, I'd like to strap you on some time.
MARTIN SCORSESE, FILM DIRECTOR: "Beyond the Valley" is beyond it. You know, this is a title, because you're going to go beyond it. It went over my head. Doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, I did like her having sex in the Bentley.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's my first time in a Rolls.
SCORSESE (voice-over): Because of the way he cut to the grille.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's nothing like a Rolls. Not even a Bentley. Not even a Bentley. Bentley, roll and roll and roll.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCORSESE: But I did like that editing in the Bentley.
CHAZ: The move was taking place and they are loading up the medical cart to take us over to our I.C., will you send an e-mail for me please? He's excited because he gets to see a movie he wants to see. It should be coming over later today. So he's happy about that.
You've been working away, huh? You have a lot of writing to do. I was hoping you could see at least one of them on the big screen.
When he was in the hospital before, we took a semi-not sanctioned trip out of the hospital, bundled him up and took him to the movies, but I don't know, I don't think the doctor would let you out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Chaz is a strong woman. I never met anyone like her. She is the love of my life.
CHAZ: I want to make sure you don't get cold.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): She saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.
CHAZ: The first time he actually saw me was at an AA meeting. And it was the first time I've ever said it publicly. Roger became very public about his. But I felt it was, you know, more private for me.
If it doesn't fit, must have quit.
Roger weighed 300 pounds when we first started dating. He didn't care that he was fat, he thought he was great and that was so sexy.
I take it this is not yours?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): If my cancer had come and Chaz had not been there with me, I could imagine a dissent into lonely decrepitude. That I am still active, going places, moving, is directly because of her.
My instinct was to guard myself. I could never again be on television as I once was. She said, yes, but people are interested in what you have to say, not in how you say it.
JAMES (voice-over): With Roger now headed for at least a couple weeks of rehab, he suggested I e-mail him questions in advance of our major interview when he gets back home.
Question one, in my life I inherited certain things from each of my parents. What did you inherit from yours?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): From my father, I inherited my pro- labor, Democratic Party beliefs, I am politically my father's child and emotionally more my mother's. My mother supported me as if I was the local sports team.
But she was fatalistic. She was permanently scarred by the Depression and constantly predicted she would end up in the county poor home. My parents so strongly encouraged my school work. We even took a third paper at home, the "Chicago Daily News," for me to read.
When I stood in the kitchen door and used a sentence with a new word in it, they would look up from their coffee and cigarettes and actually applaud me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is the memorable occasion that Roger was given the Pulitzer Prize. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Usually when somebody won a Pulitzer Prize, there was, who is he to win a Pulitzer?
But for Roger, there was real joy. You know, it was our Roger, one of us.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The only prize for years and years ever given to a movie critic.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Roger wrote his movie reviews as if he were sitting in the 15th row, taking notes with one hand, eating popcorn with the other, but he didn't simplify things.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "CRIES AND WHISPERS")
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): "Cries and Whispers" is like no movie I've seen before and like no movie Ingmar Bergman has made before. It envelops us in a red membrane of passion and fear. And in some way that I do not fully understand, it employs taboos and ancient superstitions to make its effect. We slid lower in our seats feeling claustrophobia and sexual disquiet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
A.O. SCOTT, FILM CRITIC: I think the way that he writes that sort of clear, plain, Midwestern newspaper style conveys enormous intelligence, encyclopedic learning, but doesn't condescend, doesn't pander. Roger would become the definitive mainstream film critic in American letters.
SCORSESE: He made it possible for a bigger audience, wider audience to appreciate cinema as an art form because he really loved it. He really, really loved films. And he did not get caught up in certain ideologies about what cinema should be.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After he won the Pulitzer, if he had a mind to go to "The New York Times", he could have done that; "The Boston Globe," the "L.A. Times," no problem.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ben Bradlee, editor for "The Washington Post" of Watergate fame, went after Roger hard, offered him the sun and the moon. Ebert just kept saying no. And he said, I'm not going to learn new streets, which is very Ebert-like.
There was a huge class in political difference between "The Sun-Times" and "The Tribune"." We were a working class paper. And we reached the black community. "The Tribune" was a very wealthy paper.
Look at the Tribune Tower, this huge Gothic structure studded at its base with all the great artworks of the world, you know, here is part of the Pyramid of Giza, I'm thinking, what, (INAUDIBLE) go out with a chisel and steal this thing?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): From the day "The Chicago Tribune" made Gene Siskel its film critic, we were professional enemies. For the first five years, we knew one another, Siskel and I hardly spoke. When Gene and I were asked to work together on a TV show, we both said we'd rather do it with someone else -- anyone else.
The name of our show is opening soon at a theater near you, two film critics talking about the movies, and this is Roger Ebert in "The Chicago Sun-Times."
And by the way, here is Gene Siskel from "The Chicago Tribune" and Channel 2 News.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gene and Roger were sitting kind of pinioned, in director's chairs, looking into the camera very seriously, talking about the movie.
EBERT: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" just had the audience tearing out the seats with joy.
GENE SISKEL, FILM CRITIC: Yes, and also tearing up a little of my enjoyment of the film. They were applauding even during the credits.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): It was stiff and wooden.
EBERT: But when Foreman backs up and tries to make his big points about the establishment --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): But there was something there. It was interesting to hear two people who knew what they were talking about talk about a movie.
EBERT: "Rite of Freedom" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of the new generation of West German directors, and I think --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Roger loved the idea of being on public television. He had been on it before, on a show where he introduced films by Ingmar Bergman -- it was awful.
EBERT: And in this movie, his name was Spiegel, which is Swedish for "mirror".
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a deer caught in the headlights.
EBERT: -- what is real and what is illusion and who's being fooled by the art?
Is it the artist or his audience or both?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "TAXI DRIVER")
This city is like an open sewer, you know. It's full of filth and scum.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SISKEL: And right through that last scene, I was really loving "Taxi Driver" because, up until that point, the relationship between De Niro and Cybill Shepherd has been electric.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Gene was a natural. He was one of these people who could talk to the camera. He had a huge handlebar mustache and so I just said, that is a funny-looking thing on your face; get rid of it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I thought these two guys would never be on television. These are unusual, odd-looking characters for the median TV that's all beautifully coiffed and beautiful teeth and everything's fine. And they dress like a couple of clowns if they wore these outfits today. You couldn't make Siskel and Ebert if you were Dr. Frankenstein.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): We both thought of ourselves as full service, one-stop film critics, we didn't see why the other one was necessary. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers, changing above the door.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Their lifestyles couldn't have been more different. Roger was single. He was an only child. Gene, in childhood lost both his parents, one after the other. He was a philosophy major at Yale, while Roger was, you know, one of the good old boy news reporters.
Gene just was more of a, for lack of a better word, elegant character. He caught the eye of Hugh Hefner and he was adopted by the clan at the mansion. And he traveled with Hefner in the Bunny Jet. Even though Roger wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," I think Gene lived the life for a while.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The perfect matching of opposites, Siskel and Ebert, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar and Felix, really made sneak previews a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater.
SISKEL: And now Roger and I go to the movies as critics is the subject of this special "Take Two" program on sneak previews.
EBERT: Hi, Gene.
SISKEL: Hi, Roger.
In every theater I have a favorite seat I like to sit in, in the last row sort of off to the side, but not just kind of --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reading or speaking criticism, but acting out these roles.
EBERT: And I always choose a seat that's twice as far back from the screen as the screen is wide.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And because they could get agitated, that raised the temperature of the movies they were discussing.
SISKEL: Tremendously boring, boring from the beginning of the movie. And I just to want compare this --
EBERT: No, no, wait a minute. Now he's not boring at all. SISKEL: Oh, he's fabulously boring.
EBERT: He is fabulously boring in the beginning --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was something almost transgressive and exciting about seeing on TV somebody say, about a movie, what you might always to want say to your friend or your girlfriend or your mother or your sister, no, you're wrong. It's not a good movie.
EBERT: That's the way people do relate to films is in is that argumentative sort of way in which, if you're right, nobody can tell you that you're wrong.
I said at the desk next to our music critic at "The Sun-Times," people are very worshipful of him. Oh, what did you think about Schulte's conducting last night and then he will say and they will nod like this and go away.
Then they will turn around and come up to me and say I totally disagreed with your review in this morning's paper.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The success of the show was undeniable, except we were not on in two major markets, New York and Los Angeles.
SISKEL: Here I am at the little popcorn shop a half a block from the screening room, where I see all the movies.
EBERT: This is The Chicago Theater on State Street.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Their position was, if there's going to be a movie show, it's not going to be two guys from Chicago, we're going to have New York critics or we're Hollywood.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are these guys? Right, this is not Andrew Sarris and it's also not the kind of wised up players who might be in Los Angeles, what do these people actually have to tell us about movies?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kael's influence shaped how critics looked at movies and how people read them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Film was taken seriously and so were film critics. Andrew Sarris was promoting the idea of the director as the maker of a film and Pauline Kael, elevating film writing, film criticism as an art. But these were towering figures clashing, rather like Siskel and Ebert, but with more intellectual heft.
EBERT: Uh-oh, Gene, this bowser in the balcony means it's time for "Dog of the Week," a regular feature where each of us picks the week's worst movie.
SISKEL: Well, Roger, you and Spot may not believe this, but I have just seen my first nudie karate film.
EBERT: You're kidding.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Roger once said, "Do you think Pauline Kael would be working with a dog?"
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know Pauline Kael. I never knew Pauline Kael but (INAUDIBLE) Pauline Kael.
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were the most powerful critics of all time in any realm.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Finally, they had to cave in and run the show in New York and L.A. It was a victory we relished, I have to tell you.
JOHNNY CARSON, TALK SHOW HOST: My next two guests are regarded as the most popular and most important film critics in the country.
CARSON: They are the two most influential movie critics in the country.
CARSON: Is there anybody more popular? We'll find out and ask them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ultimately, I think they were on the Johnny Carson show more than just about anybody.
CARSON: Is there something out there that is really so bad?
EBERT: I can't really recommend "Three Amigos."
It's the Christmas picture I like the least.
SISKEL: This is the happy hour.
You know, I don't think I'd have asked you if I knew you were going to say that.
EBERT: Chevy Chase has made a lot of good movies and, God willing, he'll make a lot more good movies in the future.
CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR: With your help.
CARSON: Yes, with your help.
EBERT: There is a tendency for somebody who is, who is naturally funny, as Chevy is, to try and get laps by standing there and ad libbing when somebody else is trying to talk.
CARSON: That's right.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The movie studios went from helping us to hating us, to fearing us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Circulations of all of the newspaper critics and all of the magazines could not match the reach of the show at its height.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It became quite clear very often that the film companies cared a lot about Roger and Gene seeing it, but not so much about the rest of us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two thumbs up became everything for a big Hollywood movie. Back when movie makers still thought critics' enthusiasm could sell a movie.
SCOTT: In 1991, Rich Corliss published a piece in "Film Comment" about how the show was ruining and vulgarizing film criticism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Will anyone read this story? It has too many words and not enough pictures.
Does anyone read this magazine? Every article in it wants to be a meal, not a McNugget.
Is anyone reading film criticism? It lacks punch, the clips, the thumbs. I simply don't want people to think that what they have to do on TV is what I am supposed to do in print. I don't want junk food to be the only cuisine at the banquet. Yes, et cetera.
I really did sound angry there, but it seemed to me that the Siskel- Ebert effect was that a film was either good or bad and the rest didn't matter so much.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I am the first to agree with Corliss that the Siskel and Ebert program is not in-depth film criticism. As indeed, how could it be, given our time constraints? It would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around, talking about movies. But we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.
The program's purpose is to provide exactly what Corliss says it provides, information on what's new at the movies, who's in it and whether the critic thinks it's any good or not.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're talking about film criticism in a serious way, consumer advice is not the same thing as criticism. To assume that something is good for everybody or bad for everybody is insulting to everybody.
SISKEL: The subject of (INAUDIBLE), must be feeling empty, "Crash" has some beautiful bodies on view, but also some ugly ideas.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we have an opinion about a movie, that opinion may light a bulb over the head of an ambitious youth who then understands that people can make up their own minds about the movies.
EBERT: I think I liked the movie a lot more than you did. I would like to make it clear that most people are probably going to hate it, be repelled by it or walk out of it just as they did at the Cannes Film Festival.
SISKEL: Why is that?
EBERT: Because it's too tough for them to take.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The reason Roger loved being on television is that, at his heart, he really is a populist.
Roger believes that everybody ought to be able to get a movie.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they were conscientious about trying to do what they were doing as well as they could and as seriously as they could. But invariably, a show like Gene and Roger's show becomes a part of that mainstream system.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This week Siskel and Ebert review Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Last Action Hero."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And by and large, the purpose of mainstream reviewing is not just to valorize films that get multimillion dollar ad campaigns, but to eliminate everything else.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think what Gene and Roger did was the opposite of that. Roger went out and he looked for people like Michael Moore. He looked for people like me.
As a film critic, he was somebody who gave light to new voices, gave life to new visions that reflected all the diversity of this nation, different classes, points of view, he wanted it all out there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure enough to the pet owner that they will be reunited with their pet.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My first film, "Gates of Heaven," there was a newspaper strike and so the movie wasn't reviewed by any of the New York newspapers, which is a disaster. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I miss that little black kitten so much.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just thought that's it, the movie's just going to vanish.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Both of them wanted to review it. I was troubled because the number of theaters in which it was playing was extremely small and here you have a show that's being shown on 300- some odd public television stations around the country, how are people going to get to see it?
EBERT: Let's move on to a movie now that I think is one of the one of the most brilliant, weird and unusual American documentary films I've seen in a long time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then really out of nowhere, those guys started reviewing "Gates of Heaven."
SISKEL: Well, I agree with you completely. I think it's a superb film.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then they found an excuse to review it again.
SISKEL: Films that we called buried treasure.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the third time.
EBERT: I don't think anyone who has seen this film can ever forget it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that I would not really have a career, if not for those guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I made my first film, I kind of made it alone, I didn't know anyone in the industry. I don't even know how I got Roger's email, but I emailed, assuming no one would answer.
And he answered, and he said, "Your film gets into Sundance, tell me, and I would watch it there."
So then later the film did go to Sundance and I emailed him again, and he said, yes, I'll come to see it. And I said, well, here are the three times. He didn't come to the first screening. He didn't come to the second screening and the last screening was Sunday morning I think, 8:00 am on the last day of the festival. I said he's probably not even here.
In fact, he was one of the first people there. And I was there with my actor and he said do you mind if I take some pictures with you and your actor, just in case I like the film? If I don't like it, don't worry, I'll never use them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was, I think I was probably 8 or 9 or something. And my Aunt Denise, who was a massive film geek, who passed her film geekdom on to me, found out about these rehearsals for the Oscars. And one day, he walked through. And I remember saying, thumbs up, thumbs up, screaming, screaming. And he came over.
I grew up, I made this film when I was 34 years old. The first film I ever made.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your second generation, Joshua tree generation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The film was about my aunt, my aunt who took me to the Oscars that day.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nothing wrong with that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And about losing someone that you love. And it was Ebert's review that really got to the heart of what I was trying to articulate. And it just touched me so much that I sent him the picture from the Oscars.
His reply was, we were both younger then.
The next day a blog post turned up, where he wrote, in a very heartfelt way about his own aunt, who kind of gave him the gift of art in film as well. Yes. I broke down crying. It was a mess. It's dangerous as a black woman to give something that you've made from your point of view, very steeped in your identity and your personhood, to a white man whose gaze is usually the exact opposite and to say you are the carrier of this film to the public. You're the one that's going to dictate whether it has value.
And you had a lot less fears around that with Roger because you knew it was someone who was going to take it seriously and going to come with some historical context, some cultural nuance.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every time I see him, I walk away with something new, you know. And every time I sit down at the table to do the work, I think about him. Because what if something happened and I don't get to see him again?
It was just a few days before Christmas, I said, well, Chaz, can I come there?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Merry Christmas.
Come on over and say hi.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you? What are you doing in here?
(INAUDIBLE) you've got to get out.
Oh, I like the glasses.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay off the road.
It was nice to see him interacting with his grandkids. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Grandpa Roger, do you think --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know that he must be in pain physically, but he ends up being the happiest guy around.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A Christmas stocking from Santa.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From Santa.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Called Lady Gaga (INAUDIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just remember being so young and watching for the first time so many movies and him sort of explaining to me, you know, what's important about this one, or this is a really great movie.
EBERT: Ever heard of his film?
This movie begins with seven children who are 7 and check in on them every seven years of their lives.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are they 56 now?
Oh, my gosh. Wow.
All the great conversations and the things that he taught me about movies and life and family and books and all this stuff. I just -- those experiences mean a lot to me.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's another chocolate bar.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I spoke to Werner. I said I was coming to see you and he sent his regards and he said you have to keep writing because he's very worried about cinema.
CHAZ: Could you say it the way Werner would say it?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, God, no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger, you must get better. You must soldier on, Roger.
WERNER HERZOG, FILMMAKER: He's a soldier of cinema. He's a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore and he plows on. And that touches my heart very deeply.
I never dedicate films to anyone. I dedicated a film to him where I ventured out to the last corner of this planet, to Antarctica, to the ice. And from there, I bow my head in his direction. He reinforces my courage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One time I went to see Roger. He was kind of eager and bouncing to give me something. He gave me this letter, actually from Laura Dern.
"Dear Roger, I want you to know that your generosity and expertise at the Sundance tribute meant the world to me. I've tried to come up with an appropriate way to thank you.
"This box and its contents, a jigsaw puzzle, I have treasured for some time. It was given to me by the Strasburg family when Lee Strasburg passed away. It was Marilyn Monroe's, who collected puzzles, and it had been given to her by Alfred Hitchcock.
"That night at Sundance, you inspired me about film and contribution and I wanted to pass along film and connection in some way. Thank you again, love to you and Chaz, Laura."
And then Roger gave me this gift, which I refused. I said, you cannot give me this gift. I cannot accept such a gift. And then he said, "You're going to accept the gift because you have to one day give this to somebody else who deserves it."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's it a jigsaw puzzle of?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've always been terrified to make it. I mean, this is the jigsaw puzzle that Alfred Hitchcock gave Marilyn Monroe.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): In the autumn of 1967, I saw a movie named "I Call First," later to be retitled, "Who's That Knocking at My Door." The energy of the cutting grabbed me. It was the work of a natural director. I wrote a review suggesting in 10 years he would become the American Fellini.
SCORSESE: He said, did you think it was going to take that long? And I was serious. I'm just like, it's over here. What are you talking about? It's right here.
It was the first real strong encouragement. Yes, there are defects in the movie, but he saw something special and that had to be nourished.
As you know, I carried your review around with me when I was in Europe in 1968. I kept reading, is that really about me? Wow.
EBERT: So refreshing to find a director and an actor working right at the top of their form. I think "Raging Bull" is one of the great American pictures of the year --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): His greatest film is an act of self- redemption. In the period before it, he had become addicted to cocaine and told me that after an overdose he was pronounced dead in an emergency room and resuscitated. SCORSESE: During the '80s he was extremely -- he was gone, basically, broke and had gone through some bad periods. A third marriage had broken up. And I was basically alone. The only thing that saved me or made me want to continue, just like living in a way was -- my agent called and said, "You know, there's this festival up in Toronto."
I said yes.
"Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, they want to give you this tribute."
And I was kind of scared. Could I walk down this theater aisle and go up on a stage knowing who I am?
But I knew that they believed in me. And I have that in my house now in a special place where only I can see it. And I pass by it -- every maybe five to six minutes I see it. But that night changed it. And it started my life again, you know. It was -- I didn't feel inhibited with Roger. He was that close.
A.O. SCOTT, FILM CRITIC, NEW YORK TIMES: Roger has, unlike just about any of the rest of us, arrived at this point where he is kind of the peer of the people -- of some of the people that he writes about. It's very complicated, I think, when you have personal relationships and friendships with these people, because it cannot cloud your judgment.
RICHARD CORLISS, FILM CRITIC, TIME MAGAZINE; I'm infinitely corruptible. I do not want to get to know these people as people. I want to think of them as fictional characters. My obligation is to write what I think about a movie and not to worry about someone I know perching on my shoulder saying, no, I wouldn't say that.
ROGER EBERT, FILM CRITIC: When you look at the 19th century and the great critics in music, they hung together -- critics and artists. They were in the same circles. And that helped the critics and it helped the composers. Roger brought back that concept and he was criticized for it.
That was real distracting for me the way all those pool balls bounced around like that. And the scene gets worse as it goes on. And it's all the more disappointing because "the color of money" was directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the best two or three movie directors around today.
EBERT: Doesn't have the energy and the drive and ht obsession of most of the best Scorsese films.
GENE SISKEL, FILM CRITIC: The script isn't good.
EBERT: It's just a standard sort of predictable narrative.
SCORSESE: That was a way of condemning and helping (INAUDIBLE). You've done this now once. You've done it twice, but watch yourself. As opposed to toxic, poisonous, unkind, ungenerous, lack of charity on so many others.
SCOTT: I think he was a tougher critic when he was younger. He could be really cutting and relentless and ruthless and sarcastic.
EBERT: Not a bad movie, but it's not original and it's not a masterpiece.
SISKEL: I think it's very original and very close to being a masterpiece. I have never felt a kill in a movie quite like that.
EBERT: Not in "Apocalypse Now," not in "the Deer Hunter."
SISKEL: No, not like that.
EBERT: In that case you are going to love the late show because they have kills like that every night in black and white starring John Wayne.
DONNA LAPIETRA, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: We would get into their cross talk. The camera would stop. They'd still be at it.
EBERT: I disagree particularly about the part that you liked.
LAPIETRA: They truly felt in their soul. They could still show them the error of their ways. The folly of their thinking.
SISKEL: "Benjie, the hunted" exhausted me. This is the first time I wanted to tell a dog to slow down and stop and smell the flowers.