Thank You, Roger Ebert
When I first heard the news of Roger Ebert’s death, 12 hours ago as of the time I’m starting this article, my immediate reaction was that this was going to be the hardest article I ever had to write. Then after reading a handful of pretty eloquent tributes/obituaries from around the Internet, I decided I wasn’t going to write one myself. I felt like everything that could be said had been said, much of it by better writers than myself. I thought I’d save myself the experience of being at the computer at 4am, halfway through a bottle of wine and trying to maintain enough composure to write about something that affected me deeply enough that I feel like I’m still trying to process it. Then I sat down and wrote a few pages of a screenplay for a homework assignment that about five other people in my class will do and even fewer will actually care about. Later on I watched a pretty great documentary called These Amazing Shadows, about the process of preserving and inducting movies into the National Film Registry. As I watched the credits roll on that, I realized I wasn’t escaping this article. There are few things in this life that make me as happy as not only watching movies, but also discussing them with everyone I possibly can, and to that end I owe a great deal to Mr. Ebert. I’ll sadly never get to tell him that myself, but at the very least I can tell a bunch of other people about it.
I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid, well before I had any sort of grasp on the concept of good movie/bad movie. I just sort of watched whatever I could and found things to love in most of them, which in all honesty isn’t too dissimilar from my approach today. But in my desire to learn more about them in those days of five TV channels and no Internet, I inadvertently stumbled upon the world of film criticism the way I’m sure a lot of people did, via Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. Massive 24-screen multiplexes weren’t really a thing then, so not every town got every movie. And even if they did, I didn’t get to go all that often, most of what I saw were VHS tapes rented out of grocery stores. But Siskel and Ebert were a revelation, not only showing clips from a much larger variety of movies than I had access to, but also discussing and often arguing over their relevant merits. That might not sound like a big deal now, but to a 10 year old kid trying to reconcile the feeling that somehow Ghostbusters 2 didn’t feel as cool as Ghostbusters, it was a whole new way of looking at things.
By the time I hit college and had access to an amazing video store with an endless supply of films of all kinds (albeit still sadly on VHS), Gene Siskel died. The duo that had started it all was no more, but Roger Ebert was still in full swing and thanks to the timely rise of the Internet I had more access to his work than ever before. I devoured stacks of movies every week, usually grabbing as many as I could haul back on foot from the video store to my dorm room. I watched everything from Casablanca to Dead Man to Pink Flamingos thanks to that wonderful video store, always followed by reading Roger’s reviews online or in his books which I’d check out from the library. I didn’t always agree with his analysis but it always felt insightful and his opinions were his own. It was clear to me that he wrote out of a true lifelong love of film rather than any interest in getting his quotes in an ad campaign or any concern about the majority consensus. And best of all, his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium meant that his reviews were often a much-needed signpost between one film I loved and the next I should look into, before Amazon and Netflix turned that into a mathematical equation.
I’ve spent most of my adult life either bouncing between menial jobs or at a complete dead-end. I dropped out of college, moved around too much, repeatedly displayed a tenuous grasp on the concept of functional relationships, and put too much distance between myself and my friends. So while my love and knowledge of the movies has only grown over the years, the number of people I have to discuss them with has dwindled. The ritual of looking up Ebert’s review of every possible film that I watched solidified, and his was a consistent voice on the subject that I always had access to, wherever I was. Even though it’s something that a ton of people do in some capacity or another, writing about movies on the Internet is something that I really feel has helped to put my life back on track. It’s hard to make a career out of, but it gave me something to focus on and finally a good reason to go back to school. Counting my pre-dropout credits I’m now five semesters in on my way to getting the degree I need to become a film professor, so I’ll always have a group of students with whom I can discuss the movies that I love, and hopefully impart to them even a fraction of the knowledge that Mr. Ebert made available to me.
Even though Roger Ebert is gone now, felled by a disease that even to the end failed to diminish his drive and enthusiasm, he left behind not only an unrivaled contribution to the world of film journalism, but also a great many people who considered themselves his students and will do their best to carry his work far into the future. For not only all the times I agreed with his views on a film, but also for the sometimes baffling ratings that assured me it’s okay to have an unpopular opinion and still be well-respected, I will be eternally grateful.
To read Ebert’s poignant last words to the world, an astonishingly far-reaching plan for his own future a mere two days before cancer stole him away, you can check out his final blog entry here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2013/04/a_leave_of_presense.html. A leave of presence, indeed.