Friday, April 5, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

"Funny, thoughtful, opinionated, brilliant. An inspiration to anyone who ever wanted to write from a certain point of view." - Joe Posnanski

"To be able to have done exactly what he wanted to do for a living until the very end is an inspiration to anyone." - Jake Cole

"To be a good critic, you have to know your art-form. To be a great one, you have to love it." - Peter Sagal

"When I was a kid, no person turned me on to more movies and filmmakers than Roger Ebert. He changed my life." - Michael Bonfiglio

"Roger Ebert. Everything else you say is superfluous." - Ray Ratto

Up the stairs, past the scattered toys and piles of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my grandparents' mostly unfinished attic, was the childhood bedroom of my mother's brothers. They'd been out of the house for more than 10 years. Their double beds were still there, neatly made as if waiting for them to return from school, but now this mostly forgotten space in the rafters belonged to my grandfather, who'd lined one wall with more fishing rods than anyone who went fishing only a few times a year could possibly hope to use in a lifetime and whose hoard of fishing magazines, lures and spools of line covered almost every available surface space except for the two square feet or so of table on which sat a small black-and-white television.

It was on that television, on an otherwise unmemorable day during a summer I can't quite pinpoint, that I distinctly remember watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert debating on the show that made thumbs famous. Or, more to the point, I remember trying to watch them. The TV in the attic provided me a bit of privacy and a respite from my grandfather's steady diet of local news, but it also gave me rabbit-ear antennae to adjust and a serrated tuning knob to manipulate ever so slightly in the hopes of generating a clear picture. Of course, no matter how much time you spent getting the image to come into focus, as soon as you stepped away from the TV whatever progress you'd made was sure to come undone.

Whether that was the first time I saw Siskel and Ebert on TV, I don't recall. It's possible. But what I've never forgotten is the amount of effort I put forth to watch them that day. They were almost certainly talking about movies I hadn't seen — in fact most of the time they probably discussed movies I was too young to see. But that didn't matter, because I loved movies and it was obvious that these guys did, too.

Siskel and Ebert were never appointment television for me. I couldn't remember what day their show aired, or at what time, or on which channel. But I managed to watch them a lot anyway over the years, through middle school, high school and into college, until Siskel's death in 1999.

I would have loved movies without them, but I loved movies a lot more because of them. They had passionate opinions, which inspired me to generate my own, and they were willing to fight for those opinions, which made me and my movie-loving friends want to do the same.

Most of the years I watched them, the introduction to their show emphatically underlined that these famous TV personalities were in fact print guys first: Siskel grinned as he tapped away at his computer keyboard, Ebert smiled as he hammered away at his typewriter, and then both men clutched their freshly printed columns as they argued on their way into the theater. Yet even though I went to college to major in journalism, and even though my father was a career newspaperman, and even though the idea of being a full-time critic appealed to me (at the time), I never thought of either of them as a writer until I was about 20.

That was the year I bought my mom the 1997 edition of Roger Ebert's Video Companion — a gift that was the result of her desire to have something to help her pick out movies to rent, now that her son was no longer around to provide in-house counsel. It was a sincere gift, truly meant for her, but the next time I was home from school I was the one who kept pulling the book off the shelf and losing myself in the reviews. (Years later, it now sits on my shelf.)

Unlike Ebert's subsequent Movie Yearbooks, the films chronicled in that almost 1,000-page volume spanned decades. I started by reading about the movies I'd seen, but it wasn't long before I was reading about the many more I hadn't. It was a hard book to put down. Some of the movies sounded dreadful, but the reviews were consistently compelling: the writing was accessible but also astute, and the length, whatever it was, always seemed just right.

Of course, you knew that already.

It's daunting to write about Roger Ebert in the aftermath of his death. There are so many reasons not to try: I'm ill-equipped to summarize his profound influence on criticism and cinema (although, to be clear, he was a profound influence on each of those individually, not just collectively). I'm not an expert on his body of work (I don't even have a favorite review). I never met the man (my only direct interaction with him was his brief e-mailed response to a question I submitted to his Movie Answer Man column many years ago). And the web is full of better writers who are so equipped, who have that expertise and who spent time with him — writers whose memories of Ebert's influence on them are sure sound a lot like mine.

But I'm writing about him anyway, because to avoid doing so would be to avoid this truth: as "sad" and "tragic" as I have found other "celebrity" deaths, only two have made me struggle to breathe: Jim Henson in 1990, and now Roger Ebert.

I feel a tinge of guilt about that, I have to admit. Who am I to be so heartbroken? I didn't even know the man.

But that's the thing: I did. I did know him. I knew him well enough to know that he considered himself a recovering alcoholic, that he didn't believe in God and that he died believing that there would be no sequel after the lights went out. I've got family I don't know that well.

I know those things because Ebert wrote about them explicitly at one time or another. But even without that I would have felt like I knew him, simply because that's the way that Ebert wrote, even when that wasn't what he was writing about.

His criticism is full of sincerity and heart. He could be narrow-minded. He could be stubborn. He could be unrelenting. But reading Ebert I never got the sense — not once — that he was posturing. For all the critics who write with an attitude that suggests that they don't give a damn what anyone else thinks about them, Ebert might be the only one whose criticism truly suggests he never gave a second thought as to how he would be perceived as a result of what he wrote.

You could call Ebert brave for a lot of reasons, like for the way he faced death, the loss of his (physical) voice and his collapsing jaw, or for the way he boldly invited young (and sometimes unproven) writers to contribute to the website that bears his name. But the bravery I'll always cherish most was his willingness to honestly articulate what he saw and felt when watching a movie. Much like "just being yourself," it can be harder than it sounds.

Harder, even, than saying goodbye.

It was only two days ago that Ebert said he was taking a "leave of presence" and scaling down his writing to focus on his health. No one could have been surprised by that: Ebert had already knocked on death's door several times, only to turn back and stay with us a little longer. Nevertheless, despite all those previous scares, despite his slowly deteriorating health, despite that hint that his life was becoming a struggle, the end proved as overwhelming as if it had come out of the blue. Like the ending of a heartbreaking movie you've seen a dozen times before, knowing it's coming doesn't eliminate the power of the response.

Admittedly, I haven't read as many of Ebert's reviews in recent years as I once did. But it wasn't all that long ago — less than eight years or so — that several days a week I'd spend my lunch hour reading new or classic Ebert essays along with the latest from a new blog that had come along, The House Next Door, which at the time was frequented by young writers who had grown up on Ebert and seemed to want to emulate his sincerity (several of whom, fittingly, went on to become contributors for Ebert's site). I've never loved an era of film criticism more.

Since then I've started this blog, contributed to The House Next Door (among other sites) and even had a link to one of my pieces listed on the homepage of Ebert's site (via a post featured by Jim Emerson at Scanners). It's been a thrill.

That I've posted infrequently here of late has to do with my own sort of leave of presence as I try to figure out how to fit my movie criticism into growing demands in other areas of my life. I didn't need a sign of how much movie criticism means to me, but Ebert's death provided one just the same.

Roger Ebert wasn't the guy who made me love movies. He wasn't even the guy who inspired me to write about movies. But he was one of the guys on the black-and-white TV screen that day, all those summers ago, who confirmed to me that movies were as exciting as I'd thought. And he was the writer who first made me appreciate the power of the internet, when suddenly in the late '90s I could read this Chicago-based critic as if he were my own. And he was the critic whose work I studied when I was trying to figure out how to write criticism myself.

Movies aren't my life, but for virtually all of my life movies have been a huge part of me.

Roger Ebert shaped my love of movies, and deepened it.

He shaped me, too.


Richard Bellamy said...

"Ebert might be the only one whose criticism truly suggests he never gave a second thought as to how he would be perceived as a result of what he wrote."

This is, indeed, true, and I always appreciated that about him, though I felt he went overboard on films that I thought were forgettable and, watching the show, I always preferred "the other guy" - Siskel. I loved it when it seemed that they REALLY argued. Siskel looked angry, and Ebert looked hurt, but he held his position and expressed his passion for underdog films, as you express your passion for films here and your respect for Ebert, an icon of film criticism.

Sam Juliano said...

Deeply heartfelt remembrance here Jason! Without question Roger Ebert was one of the most inspiring human beings not only to work in the film industry (where he wrote to the tune of a Pulitzer prize and was the single most influential American film critic of all-time) but as a human being, his tenacity and passion were revered by people all around the world. No serious or casual movie fan can be anything less than deeply saddened by his passing at age 70. It is the end of an era, and Ebert was one of a kind. My own formidable years were marked by veneration for the still-living Stanley Kauffmann, who miraculously is still penning review for THE NEW REPUBLIC. But I followed Ebert through the 80's and 90's and grew to love his compassion and eloquence. One of American culture's most distinct voices, and an incalculable loss.

Sheila O'Malley said...

So sad. But what a life to celebrate.

Joel Bocko said...

While I understand all your caveats, oddly enough this is the only Ebert tribute I've read so far, and the only one I feel compelled to read. Why, I wonder?

I think it's because your spirit & style - thoughtful, honest, personal (like that recollection of the day up in the attic adjusting the rabbit ears) - is very much in the Ebert tradition and thus provides a fitting send-off.

At any rate, I relate to your experience with old Roger - though you have a few years on me, I too knew him first as half of that infamous duo (the only critics that even those completely unacquainted with movie culture would know off-hand, even if only as "the fat guy" and "the skinny guy") and then was drawn in by the writing. I'll reprint here my capsule on him a few years back, when I paid tribute to my favorite movie books:

"And then, in the summer of 1994, I stepped out on my own. No longer content to ransack school libraries and dig through my parents' collection, I bought my own movie book. Up to this point, Roger Ebert was just the fat guy on TV who argued with the bald guy and stuck his thumb up in the air when he liked a movie. I didn't take him very seriously, to the extent that I took any critics very seriously at the age of ten. This book introduced me to a whole other side of the ubiquitous and much-parodied reviewer. Every review was so thoughtful, yet so easy to read, and I would find myself flipping through the book hungrily in an endless game of hopscotch...what did he think of this one? And this one? Did he like Star Wars? What's this Blue Velvet he seems to despise? The book opened many doors, not least of which was the one through which my own burgeoning critical sensibilities and style began to step. I still haven't figured out how to organize my thoughts as precisely, concisely, and yet richly as Roger, but he's still around - now active as a fellow blogger - to show the way."

Sam used the phrase I had in mind: "end of an era" although in a way the era ended long ago. You also articulated a feeling I had about him and his work, which is something I miss: "confirmed to me that movies were as exciting as I'd thought." The feeling that there is a bridge between the world of intense cinephilia and the wider world of mass culture, so that loving movies deeply, including the older, or more obscure and esoteric ones, is but a branch of a wider popular craze. In a sense that era passed a while ago but Ebert stuck around tenaciously as a reminder that it existed once and could again.


jake said...

Thanks a lot, Jason. Beautiful write-up.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

A beautiful write up that made me nostalgic. Even today it seldom happens that I watch a movie without first referring to Ebert's reviews. While Ebert was not always right when it comes to his verdict on movies, his reviews always offered the reader with a whole new perspective. I believe his death also marks the end of an era, for the world without Ebert and Siskel would be a completely different world.

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