Today it will have been ten years since the death of Roger Ebert. In all my life of seeing celebrities and people of notoriety die, his death still impacts me the most. I still walk away from most movies wondering what Ebert would have thought of them. Would he be dismayed to see what had become of the art form of film criticism? If he were still alive, would he cash in his chips and move on to writing book reviews like his colleague A.O. Scott recently has? Would he still find Twitter to be a comforting place to speak his voice, or would he get frustrated with what the site has become? I perish to think what he would have thought about Donald Trump becoming president.
And yet, what I miss most about him being here are his reviews. His final editorial "A Leave of Presence" was one of the most poetic semi-registration letters I had ever read. The fact that it (along with his movie review of "To the Wonder") both were the final articles written by a man whose mind was not only as sharp as ever, but of a man who was also aware that his time was running short, and he didn't want to waste little time he had left writing rubbish. To stare death in the face like he did with optimism and thoughtfulness may have been the greatest lesson he taught anyone. I wrote about his death ten years ago on my former site The Movie Wizard.net. That article was published in the Oscar book I published that year, however, I didn't carry it on to this new blog.
Part of the reason is not only because I've been slow to migrate old content over to this blog, but because I was embarrassed by what I had written. While it was written with passion and sincerity, it fell woefully short of many of the other tributes from fellow writers who were writing on Ebert's level (something I've come to accept I'll never be able to do). Yet as I read it, I am reminded of what a sad day it was for me to hear the news that my TV mentor had passed away. I would never get to meet him, never get to thank him for what he meant to me, and I would never get to read any more of his reviews. These days many of the younger critics don't talk about Roger Ebert anymore.
He has since been replaced by YouTube critics such as The Nostalgia Critic, Your Movie Sucks, and Red Letter Media, where the critical points are mixed with entertainment sketches and rants. His closest spiritual successor - Chris Stuckman - has left reviewing movies to create movies. It's a whole different world out there. If there is one thing I believe Ebert would be proud of is how much discourse there is in the movie world these days. More people write and film reviews than ever before, and whether they realize it or, Ebert played a major role in that. Things like blogging may be passe these days, yet film critics live on in a new generation. In that way, it feels like he never left.
I leave by republishing my pathetic tribute to him I wrote ten years ago. Aside from fixing some basic grammar errors, it is untouched from what I originally wrote. At the end of the day, I still miss Roger Ebert, however, I am thankful to have been touched by his work.
June 18, 1942– April 4, 2013
Today Roget Ebert, one of the world's most important film critics, died today. He was 70 years old. You can gauge his importance as a film critic by how many people are flocking to Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest to express how they feel about losing him. There will be tons of memorial editorials about his career in print, his Pulitzer, and his time on “Siskel & Ebert/Ebert & Roeper.” People will be writing about how he helped make criticism mainstream. You'll read about how cool “Two Thumbs Up” sounded when it first came out. All these articles will be correct, and I have no doubt many of them will be good.
I don't want to do that though because of some advice Ebert gave on writing reviews: Write in the first person. Tell your readers how you relate to the movie you are watching. And so, I'm going to tell you a story about a six-year-old boy who discovered a love for writing about movies thanks largely to Roger Ebert. Let's go way back to 1991 before the internet came along and books were still cool to an extent. I remember watching my first episode of “Siskel & Ebert.” The review that stood out was their review for “Beauty & the Beast.” Why did it stand out? Because I was six or seven years old and I loved Disney movies, of course! I didn't even know what they were doing was called a “review” at that point.
One thing did stick with me though: People got paid to talk about movies. For me, that was the coolest idea in the world. That was something I wanted to do. There was a problem though: I had a stutter. A bad one. To make matters worse, most kids that I was around didn't think much about movies. They watched them, and they probably enjoyed them, but the last thing they wanted to do was talk to a kid who had trouble expressing himself about them. They'd rather go outside and play sports or something. This meant that “Siskel & Ebert” was sort of a safe haven for me.
It was a program that talked about what I liked and made it seem important. It wasn't long afterward that I found out that the two wrote reviews. I don't remember reading any of Siskel's reviews, but my paper did print Ebert's once in a while. Now as a kid, I might have had a difficult time speaking, but I had no trouble when it came to writing. Reading his entertaining reviews became a highlight of the week for me, and when I read his famous review for “North” I knew that I had to try writing reviews myself. I think the first review I wrote (and no longer have) was for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
I don't remember much of the review or what I wrote at the time, but it felt good to do. Another way that Ebert's reviews helped is that he was able to articulate what characters said, how they acted, and what that meant to him. I also have Asperger's Syndrome, and growing up feelings were a foreign concept to me (and still are to a certain extent…some things never change). Thanks to those reviews I actually started to understand people better. Yeah, he was explaining how characters felt in a movie, but once I had a visual idea of how people felt I could then transfer that into understanding real people's emotions as well. I watched his show every week I could and read every review that the Sacramento Bee would publish.
Ebert inspired me to create this website as an outlet for my love of movies. This site is strange compared to other movie review websites because it is a site built almost purely on movie reviews. I don't have a blog for movie news and gossip. I could care less about what's going on in the industry when it comes to my reviews. Ebert taught me a valuable lesson that when you discuss movies you need to keep the subject about the movies. It's a principle I've kept on my site to this day (going on almost five years).
The Great Directors series I write was also partly inspired by Ebert. First of all his Great Movies column was inspiring because he paid attention to some great films I would never have seen otherwise. Secondly, he made it a point to talk about the directors. To talk about the people behind the camera. He taught me that while actors may be good, what happens behind the camera is sometimes more crucial to making what's in front of the camera work. Every time I would write a review, I'd read Ebert's review and think “I've still got a long way to go.” I started publishing books because I enjoyed reading his books so much.
I don't know if it shows on my site, but I try to make my reviews personal and relatable. I don't comment on gossip. I only write an editorial if I have something to comment on the movies themselves. I have no idea if the reviews are any good. I know they don't hold a candle to most of his. But when I look at the site I built, and everything I've written for it, I see something that is a big part of my life. I respect everything Ebert was able to accomplish. I love that he helped make people interested in movies as something that could be inspiring instead of time wasting. His footprints will be seen in this industry by many people for many years.
On a personal level though Ebert changed my life. He changed my life because movies introduced me to writing. Movies introduced me to emotions I could better understand. Movies were the friend of a six-year-old who had trouble making friends. And Roger Ebert introduced me to movies (after “Dumbo” of course). For me losing Ebert is almost like losing a mentor or a father figure when I still feel like he has so much more to teach me. There has not been a week that has gone by that I haven't watched an episode of his TV show and/or read a review in the paper. That's 22 years of his views being a part of my life! What does this mean for you?
Probably nothing. Again, this is purely a personal perspective on how much of an influence Ebert had in my life. Though his accomplishments are many, for me the biggest impact he had on my life was that he helped me love the movies even more. He was a man who influenced millions around the world, and I was just one of them. He's going to truly be missed.
Other fun Ebert influence trivia:
- “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” was the first non-comic, non-fiction book I purchased as a kid.
- I have my favorite “Siskel & Ebert/Ebert & Roeper” video reviews in a folder on my external hard drive.
- I commented on his blog posts several times. Though he let all the comments through the only one he responded to was one where I had to correct him on the difference between Green Lantern and Green Hornet but told him it was an honest mistake since both movies were forgettable. His reply: “Phew.”
- When I adopted two pet chinchillas, I named them Siskel and Ebert.
- I sent him a copy of my first published Oscar book with a note thanking him for inspiring me to write it. I never heard if he got it or read it, but it’s fine. Chances are he was busy writing reviews that would have been collected in a better book.