Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation


After a lengthy and candid battle with cancer, Roger Ebert, the most famous and most popular of film critics, died today at the age of 70. The news hit me harder than I had expected. There will be plenty of places to read smart takes on how Mr. Ebert changed the face of film criticism, sharp reportings of his life story, moving assessments of his writing legacy, and tender personal reminiscences from those who knew him best or met him only fleetingly. I mean to simply say here what he means to me.

Of course, he beat us all to the punch and said it best. His book Life Itself, published in 2011, is a perfect autobiography. His final blog post, published earlier this week, is a perfect farewell. His last lines: “…thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.”

For many years, I came to every great movie through him. In middle school, I was already a kid who was deeply interested in movies of all the usual kinds – Disney, Star Wars, superheroes and sci-fi. But one day, stumbling around the Internet, scouring for film news, I found my way to Roger Ebert’s reviews and they quickly became a regular stop. I read his book The Great Movies, devoured it in a weekend, actually. His evocative prose and sparkling empathy struck me even then. I became a regular reader. He led me to other great critics, countless great films, and eventually to the confidence to express my own opinions about film, even if to no one but myself. Even when I disagreed with his take on a particular picture, I found myself grateful for having read him.

In his inimitable writing, Roger Ebert taught me that to love the movies is to love everything: art and literature, religion and philosophy, politics, history, music, human nature, the art of a good joke, the warmth of a comfortable anecdote or a trusted quote, and the joy of wearing your insight and expertise lightly. He taught a generous love of film, one big enough to find the art of schlock and the schlock of art. Cinema is a window to the world and all it contains.

He was an inviting presence on the page, but I loved seeing him on TV as well, in Siskel & Ebert and all the iterations thereafter, hugely entertaining and relatable. He was at once larger-than-life and down-to-earth. Best of all was having the memory of his speaking so that each piece he wrote read in my mind with his voice. Even when he lost the ability to physically speak in 2006, his prolific writings still spoke.

Ebert’s writing was so personal that to open his books or to click on his site felt like you pulled up an easy chair and listened closely to the words of a warm friend who loved to talk and was happy to share his thoughts, grateful for an interested audience. He taught by example that film was both serious and silly in reviews and essays that could turn tonally on a comma, indulge paragraph-long – or even review-length – digressions. He could reveal deep insights in clear, concise, nonjudgmental ways and make it look easy. He could cut a movie with one quick quip and reveal affection for a disreputable genre outing with a raised eyebrow of a parenthetical. He was also a playful experimenter in his writing. His Great Movies essay about Spielberg’s E.T. takes the form of a letter written to his grandkids. In reviewing the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy, he imagined a debate about the film’s merits or lack thereof going on between an angel and a devil on his shoulders. In no way only gimmicky, these and many pieces like them are occasionally imitated, but never bested.

I’ve quoted him more in my day-to-day life than probably anyone, a fitting tribute to a man who knew just when only Dickens or Twain or Dickenson or Fitzgerald could truly evoke the meaning he desired to make out of a film. He was fond of saying that a film is not about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it. The same is true for his reviews, virtuosic pans that linger long after the movie in question has been forgotten, moving anecdotes that draw deep, unforgettable personal connections. He is a man who, for most Americans, defined a profession. Without ever upstaging the medium he loved, he turned film criticism into long-form memoir writing. After years of reading him, I felt like I knew him. He’s the reason I wanted to express my thoughts about film in writing in the first place. When news arrived today of his passing, I felt like I had lost a friend. He’s the most important person in my life that I never met. All of us who love films and want to write and respond to them are in his debt.

To adapt another of his famous sayings, no good life is long enough.







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