Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memory of Roger Ebert

More than any other critic, perhaps more than any single filmmaker, Roger Ebert helped me fall in love with the movies. He was the first critic I ever read, and he remained the first one I turned to every week to find out what he thought of the new releases. True, my tastes in movie reviews changed and broaden over the years, but Ebert remained my favorite right up until the end. He died today at the age of 70, just a few days after he announced he was going to scale back his workload.

As a high school student in the 1990s who was starting to get interested in movies, Roger Ebert’s reviews were the first ones I read. I don’t know how many lunch or spare periods in high school I spent holed up in the library reading his Movie Yearbooks (I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school). Every Friday, I would head over to the computers in the library (I didn’t have the internet at home) and read his new reviews – during the summer and other breaks, I’d head to the public library, and spend some time reading what Ebert had to say. I bought several of those yearbooks as well, and read them until they were dog eared at best – one of them eventually lost both covers, and tore in half – but I hung onto for years after.

And, of course, I loved watching he and Gene Siskel battle out week after week in the balcony. I always gravitated towards Ebert – not that I disliked Siskel in the least, but I never really read his work. He was smart and opinionated, and more easy to anger than Ebert, who I always though the more confident of the two – the one better able to make his case. The show was never the same when Siskel was replaced by Richard Roeper – who could never really challenge Ebert the way Siskel did. Still, I watched it to see Ebert.

I guess you could say that I consider Roger Ebert to me my first teacher about movies.  I have no idea how many movies I watched because Ebert championed them. It’s no accident that Roger Ebert’s favorite filmmaker – Martin Scorsese – became my own favorite. And his reviews of Hitchcock, Welles, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Chaplin and Keaton got me started on looking further back in cinema history. His great movies series is invaluable, offering perspective and insight on the most established classics, as well as not so established ones. I watched my first documentary – Hoop Dreams – because Ebert championed it so much. I excitedly walked to and from my local video store in a snow storm to pick up my copy of Carl Franklin’s One False Move, that I had to special order, because Ebert loved the film so much. I was mesmerized by Kieslowski’s Three Colors because Ebert lauded it. I watched the films of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee because of him – and far too many others to count.

Ebert was undeniably the most famous film critic in America for most of his career. He had his detractors of course – those who say that his show diminished film criticism to simply a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and nothing else. That’s bullshit of course – few film critics ever wrote as many reviews as Ebert did. Last year, he wrote over 300 of them. Many newspapers employ multiple film critics, but for the most part at the Chicago Sun Times it was only Ebert. There are few major movies made between the late 1960s and 2012 that Ebert DID NOT review. His show always offered a quick taste of his review – but the written reviews were still there in all their glory.

What I think I’ll remember the most about Ebert is the passion for movies that was evident in his reviews. He loved movies – and unlike many critics, didn’t hold himself up above them. He gave every film a fair shot – he went into everyone hoping to love it. Ebert could rip apart a horrible movie with the best of them, but he never lowered himself to the snark that many critics do. I try to keep this in mind when I write my own reviews in my own small corner of the internet. If that passion for movies – that love of movies – that Ebert had ever fades from me, that’s when I’ll know it’s time to stop watching so many – and time to stop writing about them. I hope that day never comes for me, as it never did for him.

I guess what it boils down to is that Roger Ebert is one of the main reasons I love movies. I never met the man – I did see him once at TIFF, holding court and talking to anyone who happened to stop by – but few people that I haven’t met have had such a large impact on my life. For that, I can only say Thank you, Roger. You will be missed.

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