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Friday, April 5, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

It somehow doesn't seem right to feel this much sadness over the passing of a man I never met, whom I only ever knew through the filter of various technologies. In my head, I know this sadness isn't logical. Yet I feel it nevertheless.

Roger Ebert died yesterday.

Today, the internet is filled with poignant and personal testimonials from people who were inspired or touched or moved by him in some way. Many of those testimonials come from film critics, and I'd wager nearly every one points to Roger Ebert as one of the chief reasons they became film critics.

I unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting Roger Ebert, nor of communicating with him. I commented on his blog occasionally, and once, he responded directly to my comment (I won't lie: it felt like a big deal), but my interactions with Roger Ebert came solely through the long-running TV show he shared with fellow Chicagoan critic Gene Siskel, At The Movies, as well as through his copious writings; I got to know him through his weekly film reviews, blog posts, essays, and books.

I am also not a film critic, at least in any professional capacity, and frankly, for all my aspirations, I'm not much of a professional writer, period. Yet I consider Roger Ebert as having had a tremendous influence on me.  Because I am a writer, and I love movies, and his work played a role in fostering both.

Like countless others, I first encountered Roger Ebert via At The Movies, which I watched regularly growing up. As a kid, I remember being angry when Siskel and/or Ebert wouldn't like a movie I had enjoyed, or even a movie I hadn't yet seen but wanted to. As I got older, I came to appreciate the reasoning and thought both gentlemen put into their opinions, even when they differed from my own. From there, I encountered Ebert's writings through his annual movie yearbook collections of his reviews. It was through these that I discovered his unique voice, as well as his uncanny ability to judge each movie based on what it was trying to accomplish and how well it did so. Until then, criticism (film and otherwise) had always seemed to me like something designed to tear down art which failed to reach greatness; Ebert taught me that greatness is not only relatively but largely subjective, that just because, say, a schlocky action movie wasn't as "good" as something like Citizen Kane, it didn't mean that action movie couldn't be lauded, appreciated and enjoyed if it still managed to be a good action movie.

Towards the end of my high school years I began a concerted effort to expand my knowledge of movies, and in the process saw a lot of well-regarded films, both past and present. It was around this time, thanks largely to the internet, that I was able to read Ebert's reviews on a regular and timely basis, not just in compilation form. There was ten year or so period of time in which I religiously read Ebert's review of every film I saw in theaters (to the point where getting to read his review after seeing the movie was almost as exciting as the movie itself. In the case of some truly wretched movies, reading his review was better than the movie itself).

We didn't always agree (Ebert always seemed to have problems wrapping his head around the wave of superhero movies that rose to prominence in the last ten years), but I always marveled at his ability to put into words why a movie did or didn't work for him, and even though I wasn't writing film criticism in any professional capacity, I found myself emulating his approach and style in my own considerations of movies, and in discussions of them with others.

Ebert never wrote any fiction, as far as I know, yet still, he influenced my own fiction writing. He taught me the importance of voice, both authorial voice and character voice. He taught me more about storytelling, about how a story does or doesn't work, than any class I took in college. He taught me the importance of always being open to being taught.  

My religious readings of his reviews dropped off in recent years, in part because more and more of my free time was spent on my own writing, and in part because Ebert himself wasn't writing reviews as regularly, largely due to his health. But I still checked out his website when I could, particularly his "Great Movies" and "Answer Man" columns, as well his blog, which often featured a far more personal voice than his reviews. There I learned that Ebert and I shared many political views, and that, just as with movies, he was much better at articulating and arguing his position than I ever was. 

So even though I never met Roger Ebert, I feel like I've known him, at least some part of him, for almost as long as I can remember. I will miss him, and I am sad. I am sad that there will be no more "Great Movie" columns or books, no more "Outguess Ebert" Oscar contests. I am sad that I'll never again read Ebert grouse about the frustrating and reductive "four star" review system his newspaper forced him to use, or how inane he thought top ten lists were. 

I'm sad that I'll never have the opportunity to meet him, to thank him, for all the great movies I never would have seen without him, for inspiring me, for teaching me. 

Most of all, I am sad that I'll never again be able to come home from a movie and find out what Roger Ebert thought about it.
Goodbye, Mr. Ebert, and thank you.

See you at the movies. 


  1. I feel much the same as you. So many of us, movie buffs and folks who write about the arts / entertainment / pop culture and especially those of us who are both, are taking this personally. Ebert was a mentor, an example, a paragon (but in the most human of ways) and it just sucks for him to be gone.

    When I was a kid, yeah, he was simply the pudgy guy who argued with the tall guy on that show about the movies, but both on TV and in print his style captivated me more as I grew to understand more of what he was writing and talking about. You're right about his "unique voice" — something that I suspect only comes from banging out an insane number of words over the course of a career unless you're a supremely gifted writer, and Ebert was both; his style was so direct, the opposite of deceptively simple, and I despair that I'll never come close to his ability to present les mots justes in such casual fashion. I agree too with your shout-out to "his uncanny ability to judge each movie based on what it was trying to accomplish and how well it did so".

    He was human; he could err. I disagreed with both Ebert and Siskel at times when they dismissed something that I found just pure fun as merely a trifle, and other times when they embraced something as pure fun that I thought was outright bad. That was part of the game, and I couldn't agree more about the anticipation of finding out what they, but especially Ebert, had to say about a film I'd seen being an essential part of the moviegoing experience. I found it almost more awkward when he tried to champion a superhero film or something else adapted from or obviously inspired by comics than when he panned it, because he clearly wanted to identify as part of that culture to an extent, to show that he was in touch with his inner child and was hip to the way of the fanboy, but he really didn't have the background or the language. Still, I can't knock that impulse in a guy who synthesized (no computer-voice pun intended) the rarefied air of criticism and the vernacular so successfully.

  2. I too was saddened at Roger Ebert's passing, even though it was sadly expected. It broke my heart when, either through pictures in the newspaper, online, or other media forms, I could see how the jaw cancer was eating away at this once vibrant, joyful and full-of-life man. It also made me sad when he had to communicate through a special computer. Like many Americans, I enjoyed watching him and the late Gene Siskel spar back and forth about movies. It was a rare treat when they agreed that they both liked or disliked a movie! I also was saddened by the passing of Gene Siskel in 1999, I think it was. Other critics would guest-host and argue with Roger, and eventually Richard Roper was picked as Gene's successor, but it was never the same or better as when Gene and Roger would go at it. I don't know how many Simpsons fans there are out there, but there was an episode, where, even though they weren't Roger and Gene, there were 2 animated movie critics arguing about the latest "McBain" movie. I think "McBain" is the Simpsons spoof on the "Dirty Harry" movies. But I'm sure that "At the Movies" fans realized that these 2 critics were based on Roger and Gene. Or as Homer put it, "I love it when the bald guy argues with the fat tub of lard"!! I'd talk about being a fat tub of lard, Homer Jay!! Yes, Gene's passing marked the end of an era. And Roger has now passed; even though I know that he's in a more wonderful place now and that he's not suffering anymore, it's very sad. Thank you, Mr. Siskel. Thank you, Mr. Ebert. The balcony is now truly closed. R.I.P.


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