I am saddened to write this. I am mournful to memorialize this. I am grateful to have the opportunity to express myself at this. And I am forever magnanimous for all that came before this.
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert. You will be missed.
Roger Ebert died April 4 at the age of 70 after his cancer returned. I deign to attempt to rise to his greatness, accessibility, insight and wit in my effort to properly memorialize the most influential film critic in my life, so it is with extreme gratitude that I draw liberally from the obituary eloquently written by his flagship newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times. I strongly encourage you to read the entirety of it here.
All I can offer is a personal reflection on the many ways Roger Ebert influenced me. He shaped the way I talk about culture, and he embodies what my critical voice aspires to be. I will miss Roger Ebert’s writing, but I believe that statement is incomplete. I have never met Roger Ebert. I feel like I have, but I haven’t.
So I think this is more precise: I will miss the feeling of having watched movies alongside Roger Ebert.
* I worked for a public relations firm during the Great Recession. My client work eroded (and much of the client I did have wasn’t terribly challenging) which left me with large gaps in my workdays with little to do. I founded and populated this. I devoured internet writers with large back catalogs and ended up mimicking their voices in my own writing. Hi, Bill Simmons. Hi, Scott Keith. Hi, Chuck Klosterman. And most importantly, hi, Roger Ebert!
* I found myself on Roger Ebert’s website just feasting on his substantial volume of work. I read every review on the mainpage without fail, including movies I never had any intention of seeing (which is sort of unusual for me other wise). When I exhausted that, I began searching his archives for every movie I had ever seen to see how our experiences aligned. Even when our final appraisals of a film differed (whether he enjoyed it and I didn’t, or he didn’t and I did), I still found myself unable to refute his opinions because his insight was so observant and well-reasoned. You know you’re a fan of someone (and totally underworked) when you’re searching for a review of Mrs. Winterbourne starring Ricki Lake just to see how your thoughts of a totally forgettable, marginal rom-com match up. He liked it more than I did.
* I once undertook the fool’s errand of trying to compile my five favorite films of the 00s. One of the films I chose was High Fidelity, and of the five I chose, it remains, save Brokeback Mountain, the only one I remain fully confident in choosing. Yet it was the one I had the most trouble writing a tribute for. Why? Because Roger Ebert had already done so, and done so fucking flawlessly. So I did what anyone standing before a master would do. I ceded the stage to him and just took a giant block quote of his to make my point. Ultimately I should have just pasted a link and left the rest blank because my words were superfluous. I just re-read Ebert’s review again and its perfection still leaves me agog to this day. It’s just an absolutely flawless distillation not only of why the movie works, but why I love it so. Roger Ebert is the Platonic ideal of the voice of in my head. I will likely never be able to express myself this articulately, which is why I derived so much joy from reading Roger Ebert’s work. He was already doing it for me.
* The flipside of this, of course, was Ebert’s venom. No movie, I would argue, earned Ebert’s scorn quite like North. I subscribed to Showtime for about 6 months of my adult life 5 years ago, and it’s no secret their selection of movies blows a dead bear. During that time, I wrote this: “Speaking of shitty movies, I watched the movie North on Showtime recently and remembered that not only is it completely preposterous, it’s just plain fucking terrible to boot. Then I read Roger Ebert’s hilariously scathing review of it and was so amused by it, I watched the movie again.” Let’s be clear here. I watched a shitty movie once because I had nothing better to do. No surprise there.
Then I read a review of that movie, particularly this line: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
That review was so compelling, funny and unexpected, I had to watch the movie again just to appreciate Ebert’s review properly. I invested two more hours of my time on something awful just to get appropriate appreciation of Ebert’s review. That’s fucking transcendent criticism.
* Above all else, I always appreciated Roger Ebert’s thoughtfulness. I cannot think of any better tribute to him than to end this piece with his own words, as seen at the conclusion of his Sun Times obituary. I agree completely.
Thank you for your life and your work, Roger Ebert. The world is better for your work, and lesser for not having you in it. You have inspired me, and I work every day toward your shining example.
May you rest in peace.
“‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs,” he wrote, at the end of his memoir, “Life Itself.” “No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”