Roger Ebert 1942-2013

April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert is dead.  This isn’t really a shock, and yet it is a total shock.  A few days ago we found out that the cancer he had been battling for the better part of a decade, and which ultimately claimed his voice and his jaw, had come back, as it is wont to do.  I didn’t expect it to happen so suddenly after he enumerated all of his plans for the next year so recently, but here we are.  So in memory of the man and the critic, let’s talk about me.

I grew up in Southern Alabama, in a home of born-again Christians who seem to have run with the evangelical revolution of the late 70s/early 80s.  As such I was denied the pleasure of watching most films that were not animated.  This wasn’t such a big deal to me until when I was about 8 years old all of my friends would talk about Alien 3 or later Terminator 2: Judgment Day and I couldn’t be a part of those conversations.  I wasn’t even allowed to see Home Alone, and when I was at a sleepover in 1991 at a friend’s house and they all watched it, I left the room on my own accord.  I remember my friend’s mother dropping us off at the cinema to see a movie about Christopher Columbus that the paper had listed as “PG”, but upon buying the ticket I realised it was PG-13 and called her from a payphone to take me home.  I was not one to confront the wrath of the Almighty.  Because of this I later reflected and figured my obsession with films started there, at that phase of denial and the way it made me feel left out on the playground.  Really, though, it probably started with Aladdin, and my mother deeming it okay to just drop me and a friend off at the cinema.  Before long she was dropping me off every weekend.  When Jurassic Park came out I wasn’t allowed to see it because it was PG-13, but I grew obsessed.  I had the soundtrack, folders, and I even read the incredibly violent book.  They eventually relented and allowed me to see it, and the feeling of sitting in the cinema seeing a film I couldn’t believe they allowed me to see was far more terrifying than any raptor attack.  In my obsessiveness, I had kept Ebert’s three-star review from a syndicated column and read it upon seeing the film.  How could he not think this was the most amazing movie ever made?  If I remember, he discussed the way in which Jaws had held back the shark for most of the running time, allowing the audience to build up a sense of unseen dread in their minds, while the dinosaurs are revealed very early in Jurassic Park, as though Spielberg were more interested in what the effects could show instead of how they could work on the audience.  I didn’t buy it at the time, of course, but he was right.

As films became a bigger and bigger part of my life, and my mother would drop me off in the mornings and pick me up in the evenings on Saturdays or Sundays and I would just sit in the cinema watching whatever was on, I began to watch his show with Gene Siskel, as well as Sneak Previews with Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons (thank the maker I had the common sense to realise which one was more edifying).  Of course, as a geek, you do this just because you can’t stop.  You want to see clips and hear discussions just to get excited or to relive the sensations of seeing the film itself, but the criticism began to creep into my brain. I was, subconsciously or conciously, learning things.  How to view films, perhaps, or more importantly, how we as people understand and explain our feelings about something.  It was probably my first real exposure to critical thinking in that sense, and from there on I’ve had a real drive to know why I feel the way I feel about one thing or another, even if I can’t fully explain or justify it in intellectual terms.  It also taught me that golden rule of film viewing:  It’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.  The notion that it isn’t just about the story or cool things happening, but about how it portrays those things and what that means in a larger sense was crucial to my development as a moviegoer and, I suppose, as a person.

In 1995 my mother finally gave up and let me see R rated films.  Obviously first and foremost I was catching up with the Alien films and Speed and Bad Boys and Executive Decision – I was a teenage boy after all – but I was also riding my bike up to Blockbuster to rent John Sayles’ Lone Star the day it was released because I saw a glowing review on Siskel and Ebert’s show.  It was the middle of the American Indie Rennaisance of the 90s and I was taking in Tarantino in one hand and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory with the other.  Fargo felt like an epochal moment for me because of Ebert’s review, and I haven’t looked back since.  When I discovered his reviews were being posted online for free in 1998, I went full tilt mad.  His archive only went back to 1986, but I was reading review after review after review, trying to catch up with recent movie history.  When he started his Great Movies column, I began to educate myself on the glories of world cinema, from Resnais to Kurosawa to Fellini.  Not that it was easy to get a hold of these things in Alabama, but when I could, I would.  Since 1998, I still check his website every Friday (or in the past few years, on Thursday) to see the new reviews.  Not being able to do so from now on is going to be strange, because you don’t keep up a habit for 15 years and not feel the lack when it’s gone.

He was a populist critic, to be sure, and this has drawn the ire of people like Armond White and I’m sure twitter and comments sections are ablaze with naysayers (though my own Twitter feed is almost nothing but respectful celebrations of the man).  Eisenstein’s writings changed the way the world made movies.  Bazin’s changed the way the world viewed movies.  Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and Robin Wood and Manny Farber changed the way American criticism was written and received and discussed.  Arguably, Ebert never did any of that for the intellectual circles, but he reached a wide audience and influenced so many way after film critics were supposed to have that kind of reach.  In recent years he’s done a lot to foster young writers on his site.  His shamefully short-run PBS show, Ebert Presents At The Movies was brilliant for the way it used Christy Lemire, a vibrant but traditionally populist critic as a counterpoint to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who is a great representative of the new kind of internet criticism that has sprung up over the last decade.

After his first battle with cancer and his leave from the show, his reviews seemed far too kind to mediocre films for my taste, at least for  awhile.  I suppose we all move on and want to explore different areas of cinephilia, and I (wrongly) thought I had “outgrown” him in some way.  I could never dismiss him, though, especially as even after he lost his voice he became absolutely prolific in his writing, and not just about films.  His pieces on alcoholism, evolution, politics, and everything else on his site are incredible pieces of writing from anyone.  Not bad at all for a man who seemed to just fall into film criticism in the late-60s.  It’s easy to scoff at the films he would give four stars to in recent years, but if you really look at it, his reasoning and his writing actually improved.  We can be pretty cynical out here in the world of cinephilia, and it’s important to have someone remind us that there’s a beauty to the moving image and the way it transports us from our own world or reflects back upon us our own lives.  In the end, it all felt incredibly generous in the best possible way.  We should never lose sight of how lucky we are to love and cherish this art.

Throughout everything, he was a defiant optimist.  I never met him, and I never knew him, but I always felt like I did.  That’s the mark of a great writer, a great thinker, and a great humanist.  Thank you, Roger, for everything.


One Response to “Roger Ebert 1942-2013”

  1. Greg Says:

    As usual, very well written. It’s interesting that you and Mike Ryan both wrote very personal remembrance of Ebert ( Both good in your own way.

    Both of you wrote something to the effect that even though he was a strange, he never felt like one.

    My relationship with films are obviously much more different than the both of yours and Ebert never meant all that much to me. (For some reason, I always prefered Gene Siskel.)

    Still, these pieces made me undersatnd and appreciate him a bit more.

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