In tribute to one of the true legends of film criticism, Roger Ebert, the Heave staff will be updating this post throughout the day and into early tomorrow with their thoughts and tributes. Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert.
Roger Ebert dies at 70 after battle with cancer. As I write this, this headline, announced by the Chicago Sun-Times, is going rapidly viral, spreading outward all over social media. Friends and family have already texted, making sure I’d heard, to commiserate. Colleagues and I are discussing how it’s difficult for us to keep it together through the work day, to continue doing jobs that now feel grossly unimportant by compare. Even now, I keep hoping somebody will out this as a terrible, days-late April Fools joke, so I can spew vitriol at them, write angry admonishments instead of this while knowing that Roger Ebert is still alive. For a group such as ours, one that largely grew up in or around Chicago, Ebert was the reason we started doing what we do, one of the first people that taught us that appreciating film (and really, all popular culture) could be a noble pursuit, a great way to spend a life. He was the perennial presence every Friday morning, the only source you could honestly trust as far as telling you what was worth spending your money on. And even the things he hated (and oh, how he would hate them), he would write about them in a way that suggested a profound respect for even the trashiest movies.
I could talk ad nauseum about the many ways Ebert shaped my life through the first 24 years and up to now, about how I’m about to get an MA in cinema studies because of his work or how I learned how to read as a child while cobbling together the entertainment section of the Sun-Times in my Naperville, IL preschool so that I could pore over his reviews in blissful solitude. As I write this, it almost feels disingenuous to tie the end of one life to another. And while I might not abide this a majority of the time, with Ebert it feels appropriate, given how his omnipresence in so many lives (and through Siskel & Ebert, so many homes) made him an accessible figure, one we related to and grew to care about. Even his latter work, about mortality and his life as much as film, made him a man of the people, one who understood what he meant and used that for so much good. Instead I’ll conclude only by saying that I have never felt more validated in any life’s pursuit than I did the day I sat next to Mr. Ebert during a critics’ screening of Antichrist, and that I rarely will again. And that I thank him for inspiring me to do pretty much every single thing I’ve ever done, professionally or personally. And that so many others owe him this same debt.
Here’s what I’ll say about Roger Ebert before I go lose my mind with emotion. I’m paraphrasing his North review:
“I loved this man. Loved loved loved loved loved this man. Loved him. Loved every possible quantifiable conceivable aspect of him. Loved the sensibility that he brought to movies loved by him. Loved the overt insult to the films that he did not believe entertained him. Roger Ebert is a great man — one of the greatest ever made.”
It’s weird that we have such strong connections to celebrities. I’ve met a fair amount of famous people in my life, but few of them made me as nervous as I was when I met Roger Ebert for the first time. I was running late to a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, back when I was hitting the reviewers’ circuit pretty hard in Chicago. I had always wondered if I would see Ebert at one of these events, but I hadn’t so far, and as I pondered this on the train ride there, it seemed unlikely today would be the day. But it was. As I slunk in late, looking for a place to sit, I was horrified to realize there were no more available spaces except for one right in front of the man himself. I couldn’t concentrate the whole movie (which, as Ebert would also tell you, is quite good) because I was so aware of the legend that was sitting right behind me.
Nevertheless, when the film ended, afraid I might never get another chance, I went up to him and shook his hand. I was a little afraid that this might make me seem juvenile, and beneath the other critics who were technically my peers in some strange way. But I had to take that chance. Most people never get to meet their idols. I got to meet Ebert around three times. On one occasion, he signed my copy of The Great Movies Volume I. As I sit typing this on my bed in L.A., I dearly wish I had it with me. Although I doubt he would’ve remembered meeting me, I’ll never forget meeting him. So, silly as it may sound, when I heard that Roger Ebert, celebrity film critic, died today, I wanted to run home, put my head in a pillow and have a good cry for a minute. Alas, being in an office, I wasn’t able to do any of these things.
Even calling Ebert a celebrity seems a bit weird, because in so many ways, he was anti-everything that celebrities are known for. A bookish and portly intellectual, Roger Ebert first gained notification for expressing viewpoints that few other critics dared to voice. Along with Pauline Kael (perhaps America’s other truly essential film critic), he helped to turn the tide for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde; while his peers simply didn’t get it, Ebert was one of the few people who knew right away that it was a masterpiece. He later became the first-ever film critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Awarded to him in 1975, he still stands as one of only a few film critics to ever be bestowed with the honor.
Later, of course, came At the Movies with Gene Siskel, a show where the two of them literally just talked about movies, and people ACTUALLY LISTENED to what they had to say, a feat that’s truly hard to imagine in the Internet age. So popular was their show that Forbes Magazine once called the two of them the most powerful pundits in America. After Siskel died and Ebert left because of health issues, At the Movies never recovered. And yet, Ebert’s spotlight as a public figure never diminished. If anything, he became more controversial as he got older (see Vincent Gallo, Ryan Dunn, video games). Through his blog and his presence on Twitter, Roger Ebert never slowed down. The ambition in his recently published (and now all the more heartbreaking) “Leave of Presence” letter is proof of that.
And yet, what do all his accomplishments mean to me? Roger Ebert was many things, occupying various roles throughout his life that I have often wanted to occupy myself. He was an essential Chicagoan, becoming synonymous over time with the city he worked in. He was an essential writer, who gave opinions in a style that was both colloquial and complicated. But more than anything else, he was an essential film lover. People often hate critics, because they think that all of them despise artists for doing something they can’t. And, truth be told, some of Ebert’s best reviews are his most negative ones. But if you take time to actually look at Ebert’s body of work, it becomes clear that he loved film with a passion most people don’t have for anything. He didn’t hate filmmakers because they did something he couldn’t. He cherished them because they made his life better in so, so many ways.
I think this passion is why Ebert meant so much to me. In fact, he meant more to me than most great directors do. We live in a world where it’s easy to be cynical about art. Where it’s easy to say there are no new stories to be told, no roads that we haven’t already walked down. But Roger Ebert never felt this way. He never felt that film had said all it had to say, and he always had new things to say about it. As for me, I could probably keep saying things about Roger Ebert all day; he changed the industry, he instilled generations of people with a love for movies, he was the greatest film critic who ever lived. Those sorts of things. I could talk about these things all day, and they would all be true. But for now I’ll simply say this: Thank you, Roger Ebert. Your work and your life meant more to me than you could ever know. Thank you so much.