Roger Ebert: An Appreciation

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…Roger Joseph Ebert was America’s best known film critic, and also a journalist, a screenwriter, a blogger, and a humanist. Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and a tireless champion for film as an art form. He was also the best teacher, mentor, and friend I never met. Roger (his readers always found themselves sorely tempted to call him by his first name, and often succumbed, such was the warmth and intimacy his writing and personality engendered) died in Chicago on April 4, 2013, following a reoccurrence of cancer. A few hours later on that very day, I read the news and, shaken and dumbfounded, was immediately compelled to write, almost before I had given myself a second to even process it. Quick it was, and dirty, messy, embarrassingly incomplete, but necessary. I simply had to write, if only to let some tiny corner of the world know the depths of what this man had meant to me.

The only solace I could take were the memories of what he had taught me, by word and example, about film and about life, and the fact that, in that prolonged moment of sadness, I was most definitely not alone. Well over a year later, I still miss him like crazy, which will never change…

(E.N. 10/21/14)

“The more specific a film is about human experience, the more universal it is. Movies for ‘everybody’ seem to be for nobody in particular.” -Roger Ebert 

I cannot sum up Roger Ebert. The man truly contained multitudes, and will be remembered fondly in the coming days by so many people far better equipped to eulogize him than I. Still, I can attempt to express, incompletely and inadequately, the length, breadth and depth of what he meant to me. I grew up a latchkey kid whose parents were divorced by the time I turned 6 and remarried by the time I turned 8. I was shy and introverted, naturally introspective, and painfully awkward at times. So often I felt fundamentally out of step. As all budding geeks do, I found something blessed in those confounding early days that would spark my imagination and fire my enthusiasm. For me – now a grateful 38-year-old veritable collector of passions – even before music, it was the movies.

Even today, there is little I love more than sitting alone in the dark on one side of a movie screen, opposite some other world. I saw Star Wars in the theater either before my third birthday or soon after, in one of its many revivals. I fell in love with it like so many of my generation did, though I didn’t understand a thing about it. I’d learn. I vividly remember watching Empire at the age of five, sitting with my grandmother in a cinder block theater in Athens, TN. I loved it too, but something about it was just too much to process. I’d learn, later. From the time I was old enough to really know anything, I knew I loved movies more than just about anything, and, like every other essentially unquantifiable subject that has fired my enthusiasm since then, I sought to learn everything I could about it. In the era just before the proliferation of videotape, I memorized movies as a 10-year-old by watching them on TV. I wanted to know more, and more, and still more. I still do, and part of me always will.

After a lost year+ of false starts fueled by VideoHound’s latest movie synopsis almanac or the latest three pounds of Leonard Maltin’s well-meaning stuffiness, into that breach stepped Roger Ebert, the greatest professor of film theory and film appreciation an eager young student could’ve asked for (how I envy those he actually taught). I knew him from TV, of course, but the first time I read one of his film reviews rendered his TV persona instantly irrelevant to me. Besides loving to write myself, I love foremost to read good writers, and Roger Ebert was an EXCELLENT writer, a Pulitzer Prize winner…for film criticism, no less. It took years for that to properly register for me. His was an active, endlessly inquisitive mind, gentle, civilized, witty, mischievous, empathetic, loyal, esoteric, and remarkable to me in almost every respect. I bought the new version of his exhaustive “Movie Yearbook” every year for at least a decade, and devoured every word contained therein. Ebert’s musings, insights and delightful turns of phrase guided my already formidable love of movies down a vivid new path.

“One of the tasks faced by serious filmgoers is to distinguish good films in disreputable genres. It is insufferable to claim you ‘never’ see horror movies (or Westerns, musicals, war movies, teenage romances or slasher pictures). You’re presenting ignorance as taste. The trick is to find the good ones. If a film holds my attention, it is in one way or another a good one. If it moves or delights me, if may be great. If I am distracted by its conventions, obligatory scenes and carelessness or lack of ambition, it deserves to be tossed back into the genre.” -Roger Ebert

Ebert taught me that movies designed to be “for everyone” really seemed to be for no one in particular, and that the more personal a film seemed, the more likely it contained discernible truths across a spectrum of different viewers. He taught me there were no disreputable genres, and that a movie, rather, could be “good” or “bad” simply based on how effective it was as an example of its type. I saw Halloween for the first time at his tacit urging. He pushed me to see Casablanca, a movie made the year my mother was born. They, along with the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back, became two of my three favorite movies ever. He pushed me to see The Maltese Falcon, His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Bridge on the River Kwai, Annie Hall, The Third Man, The Wild Bunch, and literally dozens more. What were the chances that a teenager in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s would’ve done that organically? Even the films I didn’t watch, I still noted. Whenever I happen across one, I always look twice. Whenever I see a new movie, the first thing I do afterward is read his review.

To a solitary boy, art can be the entire world. It can be a way to escape, or to find yourself, or both. It certainly was to me. As that boy becomes a man, the things he loves don’t fall away like some remnant of childhood. Instead, they gain in complexity just as he has. I knew how impressive a thinker and cineaste Roger Ebert was instantly. It took me years to gain full appreciation for what a wonderful person he was. When he was struck with cancer years ago in a harrowing, prolonged ordeal that took his lower jaw, his physical voice and almost his life, it forced his withdrawal from the public eye and, in one of the greatest examples of serendipity I know of, caused him to retire into an increased journaling presence online that exposed him, unvarnished, to a whole new world. Even as he continued reviewing movies (a personal record 300+ last year alone), his journaling allowed him new avenues of expression. In the face of death, he offered limitless gratitude for his life, unbound curiosity about the limits and possibilities of humanity, and a renewed vigor to engage with the world that he had never quite been afforded before. It was just more required reading for me.

“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” -Roger Ebert

Some people grumbled that reviewing movies was all he was ever good at, or good for. He responded to each of these epithets with wit, grace, whimsy, and cutting rationality. He was grateful for his life and for all his various chances. And god did he ever love the movies. Because it is seemingly only capable of digesting bite-sized information, the world chose to commoditize Roger Ebert’s thumbs; I couldn’t have cared less. To me, he was a teacher, a scholar, an example, a friend, and a fellow traveler, forever looking for the good in both people and the world, and enthusiastically championing transcendence in cinema, whether it was to be seen in a grand gesture, a simple pause, or a slight detail. His absence leaves a massive hole the world over in the hearts of very specific empathetic nerds like me. To this very specific empathetic nerd, the news of his passing is devastating in its suddenness and thudding finality.

I do take solace in knowing that the number of people he touched as he did me is very likely incalculable, and in knowing that I could start reading his body of work straight through and that it would still be there, unfinished, to fascinate, move and surprise me when my own time on Earth is over. This weekend, I think I’ll watch Casablanca on blu-ray, once by its lovely self, and once with his commentary illuminating the noir. I never met the man, but he truly inspired me, and I will miss him forever and a day. Ours was a beautiful friendship.

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