“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds — not simply by identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it — but by seeing the world as another person sees it…. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
Roger Ebert, Introduction to The Great Movies.
Roger Ebert died Thursday. I feel strange writing the words. It has taken me this long to even get them down. The day before he had published his final blog entry pointing towards a series of new directions in spite of new health problems.
It was too aptly titled “A Leave of Presence”.
Many of us grew up with Roger in print and TV as the famed critic. But it was his conveyed humanity that endeared him to his fans, the real reason why it is so unbelievably difficult to write this.
Kael, Sarris, Bazin, Eisenstein…the names read off like titans to movie geeks. The philosophers, theorists, and critics of film. The medium that became the greatest popular art form of the 20th Century. Yet a film critic is ostensibly a cold person, a person dedicated to digging beneath the surface of cinema and rubbing our noses in that shoveled dirt. For these distillers of cinema there was one voice that stood out for a very simple reason. Roger Ebert spoke not to cinephiles, critics, industry people, journals, editors or anyone else that one would typically imagine a critic writing in mind for.
He always downplayed himself and kept a great deal of humility which many in criticism could never hope to have. Reading Ebert’s writing was not merely checking the worth of a particular film but rather like hearing the farseeing yet somehow poignant advice of a friend. Even when you absolutely disagreed.
The best in this lonely little group has now left us. Though he would be the first to deny it.
He wrote for us. Us. The audience that paid to go into that hallowed darkened room and await our dreams to be probed, stimulated and immortalized on that shining screen for all times. Roger wrote for the masses, but he also wrote for those of us who clung to cinema like our lives depended on it. Those of us who stayed awake in the dark and subsisted on films. He acknowledged a life outside the movies which seemed incredible for a critic to do. Film criticism is held in such a highbrow context that one is almost barred from displaying any shred of personal context, any sense of self is outlawed as it does not accurately reflect the proper ways of writing criticism. As if there are any.
There is no textbook way to write about films. Any film writer can write about the given topic, but it means nothing if they have no passion for the medium. Roger had it in spades. He maintained the enthusiasm of a child going to see the Marx Brothers while fueling his writing with the intense passion for cinema of Truffaut. He craved what we all do; the desire to be entertained, to escape from our lives and be fully stimulated in true entertainment that can be both artistic and fulfilling in one gasp.
And his writing fulfilled this. Roger is most famous for the groundbreaking film review TV program known under many monikers which he co-hosted with feuding arch rival and eventual close friend Gene Siskel. They fought, fought, fought, fought, fought all while attempting to give the public well thought opinions on the films in release in the limited program time. Their rating system became unanimous with film rating. The “Two Thumbs Up” moniker became almost as standard as the four star system.
But for me, it was his writing that stood out; every review clearly showed that he wasn’t the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for nothing. Roger wrote with the passion of a movie lover and didn’t neglect his own experiences and this alone would have been enough to cement him as one of the great writers in this little club. What cemented him as different was his skill as a journalist. See, what most people fail to realize is that Roger never intended to write about films. He was a newspaperman, a journalist through and through and inadvertently fell into the job when the Sun-Times critic position fell vacant.
These elements combined into film writing that is both warm and immediate. Articles that could be extraordinarily informative and touchingly personal at the same time leave you scratching your head as to how you could ever write as effectively as this. You see, his writing was so effective that it inspired countless fans including myself to write our own criticism. Roger could tear apart a movie without getting nasty and praise silly popcorn movies without ever going off topic. His sense of focus was incredible and absolutely enviable.
How does one describe how an Ebert review read? His prose writing had the feel of an experienced voice that reeked of honesty and directness all the while still somehow feeling warm as if from a favored uncle. God, how I will miss reading Roger. Reading an Ebert review gave you not the all-important plot synopsis but what should be and is most important: a sense of the given film’s worth. You come away from an Ebert review with a sense of the film, not merely an idea of the plot. As an aspiring filmmaker a great four star Ebert review would have meant as much to me personally as the Oscar.
Disagreements. Yes, Roger could and would often make statements that seemed so completely off or wrong to our minds. One only has to look at his early reviews from the late 60’s to begin wincing. (Complete dismissal of Once Upon a Time in the West?) But this is not a negative. In fact this differing of the minds created a certain discussion between the text and the reader that continued to play out in the reader’s mind just as it would in conversation. Even the reviews you so passionately disagreed with could touch, charm, and provoke new thought. Just as life is a constantly changing experience, so is our understanding of the movies. Roger finally acknowledged this in print by admitting Blade Runner into the Great Movies.
Roger was a workaholic. He reviewed over 250 films per year, started and ran Ebertfest yearly, ran additional columns and constantly remained steadfast to the reason for even doing so. The Little Movie Glossary is still a backbone of understanding film, the Movie Answer Man as a precursor to Roger’s later online life but his effort is exemplified by his Great Movies series. Run on a secondary schedule, featuring the true artistic masterworks with Roger’s own cherished titles, The Great Movies series feature Roger’s conversational tone at full intensity. This series is easily the best writing about film ever done. I have long held that there are two books that are essential for loving films and wanting to somehow be involved with their production. One is Hitchcock/Truffaut, the other is Great Movies. That one volume is a perfect distillation of Roger in print. The Great Movies is a spring to return to frequently in order to reaffirm one’s love for the movies.
Stricken with cancer that took his ability to speak, eat (in addition to taking away a great deal of his face), and left in a situation that would call for absolute despair somehow Roger persevered. In a time when most would simply give in to their ailments, Roger refused to do so and became a prolific figure in a new world; as an avid blogger, Twitterer (if that is a word) and Facebook personality. He revived the TV show and brought it back to public access. (Similar to how he had continued on with Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999.) Despite being simply a fan and fellow lifelong rabid movie geek in the middle of Palookaville, it is impossible to describe just how wonderful it was to see this outpouring of honest thoughts and commentary from a cherished writer.
It was obvious that he was going through some impossible hardships, and yet this nagging idea only made each individual post like one of the rare good fortune cookies. It also reminded us as readers that there was far more to Roger than simply reviewing movies. He could suddenly speak of literature, politics, social and world events, and yes..even cooking. (I’m still wanting to read his rice cooker cookbook.)
Roger’s longtime friend Martin Scorsese, whom he championed after seeing Marty’s beautiful 1967 debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (Then called I Call First), put it best: “We all knew that this moment was coming, but that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching. I’ll miss him — my dear friend, Roger Ebert.”
We all feel as if we’ve lost a friend. A person we never met, never knew, yet absolutely did.
The balcony is closed. The film has unspooled off of the final reel and the theater is empty once more, a darkened haunted palace of manufactured dreams.
Where the disciples of the movies feel at home.
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
–Roger’s final blog post.
Goodbye Roger. Our deepest thanks for so passionately decrypting our love for that inescapable magic of the movies. A personal thanks for the unending debt held a young boy who absolutely came to be defined by films while stuck in the middle of nowhere and found a kindred spirit of sorts for a lifetime.
I hated hated hated hated hated having to write this.
“There are no right answers. The questions are the point. They make you an active movie watcher, not a passive one. You should not be a witness at a movie, but a collaborator. Directors cannot make the film without you. Together, you can accomplish amazing things. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll know when the director is not doing his share of the job. That’s the whole key to being a great moviegoer. There’s nothing else to it.”
–Roger in his introduction to The Great Movies
Is there anything else to take with you into a movie?
Roger’s final blog, still brimming with excitement for what life had in store.
An eloquent tribute from The Nostalgia Critic:
Youtube has a treasure trove of Roger and Gene bits:
Roger’s favorite theaters, the true places of worship for all those who love the movies:
Roger’s usual seat in the Chicago critic’s screening room.
Roger’s DVD Commentaries:
Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark City, Crumb, Floating Weeds (Criterion), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.