A Tribute to Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
Even Roger Ebert's death is a testament to great storytelling: in a plot twist few of us saw coming, the seventy-year-old bastion of modern film criticism died just two days after posting a touching hiatus announcement in the Chicago Sun-Times. He said doctors had discovered even more cancer in his body, and the aggressive treatments he required warranted taking a "leave of presence"--handing over the regular movie-reviewing duties to a rotating cast of hand-picked favorites, while occasionally returning to write about the jucier pictures.
He also mentioned ongoing developments in the "Ebert brand", which didn't interest me all that much. He was a man, after all, and not a commodity. But in the Internet Era, I guess we're all just ones and zeroes, the marketed and the marketed to.
For a few moments, I wondered about Ebert's career, and if he would have achieved living-legend status had he come of age as a critic today. Or would his never having started as a professional reviewer in 1967 denied his beloved career the cache it has now, relegating "film critic" to the same status as "collectible-candy-wrapper expert"?
I owe my passion for and understanding of the movies to two men: Roger Ebert and my high school Film Studies teacher, Richard C. Jones. Both loved watching, dissecting, and discussing films with people whose minds had yet to be blown by their wisdom. As a kid, I would eagerly await the Friday paper and jump right to Ebert's column for a witty takedown of that weekend's boneheaded new releases (or even an endorsement of something worthwhile). I took that foundation with me to Mr. Jones's class, and for a solid year was blessed to have two brilliant, warm, and humorous voices guide me through the classics.
A few years later, I had the privilege of meeting Ebert at a critics' screening of The Fifth Element. I couldn't believe we were breathing the same air, much less sitting a few feet from one another. After waffling and whining to my girlfriend in the minutes leading up to showtime, I got it together just enough to approach him. He was kind, engaged, and curious about me, and accepted my stammering flattery with a coolness that suggested I wasn't the first sweaty teenager to say "Hello".
(I met Gene Siskel at the same screening. And while I won't use a memorial piece to speak ill of the dead, I'll gladly do so if you hit me up in person.)
Over time, I would meet my hero again at book signings and see him on-stage at his Overlooked Film Festival in Urbana, IL (now called "Ebertfest"). Even as cancer and the ensuing surgeries robbed him of the ability to speak and made him, frankly, uncomfortable to look at, he was always ROGER EBERT--a smooth and insightful writer who proved that the human body is just a shell for the wild spirit within us all. As an out-and-proud atheist, I doubt he'd agree with that particular analysis, but he always made me feel connected to a larger something-or-other after every encounter.
I don't use the word "hero" lightly. When I made the ludicrous decision to become a film critic, Ebert was my guy--not necessarily in terms of style, but in the way he always put himself on the page; the way he made it okay to look at movies subjectively, rather than pretend that they were watched by cold, divinely selected arbiters of taste who didn't bring actual life experiences into the theatre with them.
Mostly, I admired his ability to bring me along for the ride of his pieces, even if I didn't agree with some of them. I used to joke that all the near-death experiences in recent years had made him so appreciative of life that he'd allowed himself to love some pretty heinous trash. But even where our tastes didn't align, I could rarely argue with his arguments' merits.
Sidebar: Earlier this afternoon, I was excoriated on a podcast. Those of you who follow this site are aware of some recent Internet drama involving my reviews and the producer of Swamphead. Well, that producer has a weekly talk show, and on last night's episode, he took a couple minutes towards the end to tear my abilities as a film critic to shreds. He didn't mention me by name (not that it would have mattered if he had), but in those profane, horrific moments, I felt about as low, angry, and sad as I had in a long, long time.
I seriously considered throwing myself off of something tall, but then I read about Ebert's passing. Emotions being a mystery and all, the news kind of cheered me up. Not that I'm happy he's gone, but thinking about Roger Ebert has always made me happy. He's weathered decades of criticism, parody, and hatred, but still went out on top--loving his job, living his passion, and not letting hurt feelings get in the way of writing.
So, yes, unsurprisingly, my non-obituary for Roger Ebert wound up being mostly about me. But I can think of no greater tribute to one of the century's greatest thinkers, writers, and supporters of the arts than to soldier on in the face of doubt and to never forget how cool it is to sit in the dark and watch movies all day.