“Never pay attention to what critics say. A statue has never been set up in honour of a critic” Jean Sibelius. Until now. In his hometown of Champaign, Illinois now stands or rather sits a statue of film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert can be seen doing what he did best, sitting in a movie theater seat giving his famous “thumbs up.”
He may have not been living during the silent film days, but Roger Ebert is a film pioneer. Ebert was writing film reviews and critiques at a time before anyone really even took notice of them. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, and the first to have a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. But what he may be best known for was his weekly syndicated show “At the movies” where Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel would review the week’s latest batch of film releases. This was the first nationally broadcast show of its kind. Siskel and Ebert became the go-to source for movie advice. They often disagreed on a film’s merit and would passionately and intelligently make their case. And the end of each review they would give the movie a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.” This simple gesture became so attributed to Siskel and Ebert that they were able to successfully copyright the thumb up/down schtick so that other copycat shows couldn’t use it.
I loved “At the movies” which was later named “Siskel and Ebert: At the movies” once the duo became famous. The show ran from 1977 to 1999. (After Gene Siskel’s death in 1999, Roger Ebert continued the format with another reviewer but the chemistry that made the original show such a success was (in my opinion) missing. Roger and Ebert had a real fraternal relationship. They had that “Laurel and Hardy” opposites attract appeal. They admired each other but also got under each other’s skin (especially when they were trying to persuade the other of a film’s merits after it had received a thumb’s down). I loved that they were passionate about art, that they would discuss intellectually the merit’s of a movie, and that when they fought on the air you kind of figured the fight continued after the cameras stopped. But their cantankerousness and hypercompetitive one-upmanship was their secret sauce. And it had me hooked.
Roger Ebert was able to invest some of the money he received from the show’s royalties into an annual film festival in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois. The festival screens films that Ebert felt deserved an audience but didn’t do well at the box office. The festival was held at the Virginia Theater in Champaign the same theater Ebert would attend as a child and the same one that ignited his love of film. After Ebert’s death in 2013, the theater commissioned a statue in his honor. The figure shows Ebert in his prime sitting in a movie seat giving his thumbs up. The statute meant a lot to his fans who had spent the last few years before his death watching cancer destroy his body. Seeing him in his vibrant earlier days was a blessing. The statue is interactive as it has two open seats on either side of Ebert. Many people come and sit in the chair and join Roger in his affirmative pose. I like the statue very much, it is positive. I’d even give it a thumb’s up (but I can’t, because you know, it’s copyrighted.)