Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
We’ll all remember what we were doing, where we were at and how we found out that Roger Ebert died after a long battle with cancer. It was probably how many of us find out about such a thing nowadays, by way of Facebook, Twitter or some other online site. Ebert’s name was synonymous with film criticism and was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. He was most likely the first film critic (along with his cohort, Gene Siskel) that you and I were exposed to and was probably responsible for influencing how we discuss and debate movies with others with such passion.
That’s what I’ll remember most about Ebert, his passion. Even as a kid, I picked up on it. Watching “Sneak Previews” on PBS with my father, my young and impressionable mind immediately picked up on his passion. I thought maybe it was just excitement, but it became clear it was passion. That skinny balding guy from the other Chicago newspaper was passionate too, but Ebert was more animated, what with the way his arms waved in the air and how he would get all frustrated. From his looks, he was unassuming and like one of us – with his big glasses and his sweater vests. While he may have been more knowledgable about film, he never talked down to viewers. He had too much respect for us.
Like a kid gathering all his friends and telling stories about a brand new toy, his passion was as palpable as it was contagious. That passion as well as his insatiable work ethic is what keep him writing fervently for 46 years (primarily writing film reviews) for the Chicago Sun-Times. But most of us were introduced to Ebert on television, where he came into out homes for 31 of those years. And because I wanted more of Ebert, at a young age I would go from watching his show to devouring his written reviews. Seeking out that Friday section to find out what he had to say about the weekend’s new movies become as second nature as putting pants on in the morning.
I appreciated and respected his film reviews for a variety of reasons. They were always passionate and very addictive. I learned quite a bit from them, and relied on them, more than I probably even know. It didn’t matter that I agreed with him (it never should), since his arguments and perspectives were always well-written and confidently stated. I understood and appreciated his opinion, even when I thought he was wrong. Like you, I can rattle off a list of films that he introduced me too and for that alone, we owe him gratitude.
Mostly though, I learned from him how important it is to write in my own voice, without worrying about how eloquent or articulate I come across. What matters is whether or not the truth is apparent in whatever I write. To this day I still wonder if I come across as real and as easy to follow as Ebert. I’ll never be as great a writer as he was, but that won’t stop me from consistently doing my best at whatever writing endeavor I tackle.
There are already plenty of informative pieces written on Ebert since his death on Thursday, April 4th. So, I’m not going to wax some “In Memorium” obit. After all, I didn’t know the man personally. I was introduced to him as you were and was rewarded by pretty much anything he wrote . His numerous blog entries drew us to him because of his openness and candor, so like so many others, I kind of did feel like I knew him.
I did often see him at screenings or at book signings though. There was usually a silent reverence in the theater when he appeared, with either an assistant or his wife, Chaz. At those in-store appearances, his interaction was as noticeable as his fatigue, but those eyes of his were full of life. He persevered and he connected with people, be through social media or in person.
In the future, when I watch movies I’m sure wonder what Ebert would’ve thought of them (especially any film directed by Martin Scorcese, Steve James, Alex Proyas, Werner Herzog or a move staring of Nicolas Cage – if you followed him at any length, you’ll know why). The fact that I’ll never know what his take will be on any of those films makes me sad. It gladdens my heart to learn that we’ll be getting at least a couple more reviews written by Ebert soon. I look forward to them as much as I look forward to going back and re-reading his books and previous reviews.
I predict I’ll be processing his absence for quite some time. We all will, be it purposefully or subconsciously. We still have his written words if not his physical presence. There’s his list of “Great Movies” to plunder and his recipes to discover in his rice cooker book. Without a doubt, he’ll remain as much an influence for this film enthusiast as he’s been for anyone reviewing films and loving the movies. Thumbs up, dear sir, and thank you.
Here’s an interview with him in Toronto, discussing his book
Roger Ebert’s Book of Film,
which he described to me once as one of his favorites books that he’s ever compiled.