On April 4, 2013, the beloved film critic and self-styled “newspaper man” Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70. He began his career at the Chicago Sun-Times and reviewed films there from 1967 until the day of his death. His words were more widely consumed than those of any critic in history, and he revolutionized criticism through his public television program Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. While he is most known for being the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and having the most famous pair of thumbs in America, my connection with him is much more personal.
In many obituaries, the author has a tendency to overstate their relationship with the subject. Hopefully I can avoid this, but I doubt I will be able to. I never met Roger Ebert, or even really knew him, but it feels as if I did. It’s taken me a long time to write this piece, as I’ve struggled to find the words in this situation, especially when, as another critic stated, Roger always seemed to have the right ones. To a lot of people he might have just been a film critic, but to me he was more than that.
Roger’s work has always been a part of my life, as I remember his face leaping off the bookshelf and staring at me from the cover of an early copy of his Home Video Companion, which we picked up at a public library book sale at the end of the last century. But I never read his work seriously until my sophomore year of high school, when my mom checked out a copy of his The Great Movies III at the Larry J. Ringer Library, up the road from my home in College Station, Texas.
My long love affair with the cinema began in the 7th grade, when Star Wars dominated my life and a war-weary biography of George Lucas served as my simultaneous survival guide and Bible. I read about Francis Ford Coppola buying a gun for George Lucas, John Milius making movies and surfing on the California beach, and other prehistoric lore about Spielberg, de Palma, and the movie brats, causing my head to fill with visions of living in a bunker with a Super 8 Camera in my hand and a KEM editing flatbed in the corner. Other kids were dominated by the typical dreams of puberty; I fantasized about slitting and slicing and splicing film with a hot mess of chemicals and adhesive glues staining the sweaty beds of my fingernails; about running around the campus of the University of Southern California with an Arriflex camera set up on a dolly rig; about going off into the woods and making movies of my own.
At first it started casually, the rubber rewind button on my remote slowly wearing away to neatly fit the grooves in my thumb. I experienced the orgiastic sensation of viewing my first DVD (I believe it was Mr. Mom), the thrill of receiving my first movie via Netflix in the mail (It was Steven Spielberg’s television movie Duel), the awe of simultaneously seeing my first foreign film and first movie by Kurosawa (Yojimbo, and actually, it was my first consciously viewed foreign film; in third grade my teacher showed us Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, but I hardly remember it).
While my knowledge at this point was mostly limited to what I had learned about movies from numerous biographies and Wikipedia entries, Roger’s writing was a natural stepping stone for my budding cinephilia. I had encountered the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa and Paul Schrader in some of my readings, but barely knew where to begin. I hadn’t found many of the truly great films yet.
I remember my very first interaction with Roger. As I mentioned before, it was through his book The Great Movies III. Seeing the jeweled green cover was like seeing the Emerald City in the distance and knowing the secrets, the magic, the wonder that lie within. I cracked it open and a new world exploded. Roger’s conversational yet lucid prose opened my eyes to the true beauty of cinema, to the mystery of the shadows and the power of dreams. I learned names like Ozu, Fellini, Wim Wenders, and Billy Wilder. To quote my favorite film, I had taken my first steps into a larger world, with Roger Ebert serving as my Obi-Wan Kenobi. I explored the galaxy of international cinema swimming like a celestial body around me, one that I had been previously blind to, and saw my first films by Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Jacques Tati, (M. Hulot’s Holiday), and Francois Truffaut (Small Change).
I quickly devoured everything he had written that I could get my hands on. Soon I discovered the wonders of his website and blog, learning more about the man while I learned more about the movies. Over time he introduced me to other film writers as well- to the neon lightning quips of Pauline Kael, the daring courage of James Agee, the almost scientific theory of David Bordwell, the radicalism of Steven Boone. Roger was someone who could appreciate a film like Solaris while also famously finding merit in one like Speed 2: Cruise Control. He taught me that criticism could be funny (as I learned from his review of Battle: LA, which he said was a film he would like to cut up and clean his fingernails with) while also being transcendently personal (like in his thoughts on The Tree of Life), and led me to begin forming my own opinions about movies and not be afraid to speak up.
I became a frequent commenter on his blog, always hoping that maybe he would speak to me. And once, he did. That was our only interaction. He responded to a comment I posted and said that great things would happen to me in life. Of all the words I have ever seen or heard in my life, I don’t think any have meant as much to me as those. What Roger demonstrated in his life, above all, was not just the beauty but the power of words. With words, anything can be accomplished.
Roger wasn’t just witty; he was deeply insightful and incredibly spiritual. His musings on the afterlife, evolution, prayer, religion, and death helped shaped my own personal beliefs at a time when I was lost. He once wrote, “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.” That’s what I believe too.
The pain he felt in his last few years, after dealing with many bouts of cancer and surgeries gone wrong, caused him incredible suffering, yet he serves as an incredible example to anyone who undergoes extreme hardship. When he lost the ability to speak and eat, he became heard even more, releasing a cookbook and increasing his output enormously. In fact, two days before he died, he announced even more projects he would be undertaking despite a short leave of absence. His work ethic was remarkable and almost heroic. The dedication he had to his work should serve as an example to us all.
His thirst, to paraphrase Thoreau (and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, a film Roger thought was mediocre), to suck the marrow out of the bones of life was unending. Whether he was off gallivanting with Russ Meyer on the set of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, or spinning a story at his favorite bar, O’Rourke’s, he recognized the value of experience and people. While a good portion of his life was spent sitting in the dark, he knew that sometimes it was just as important to turn the lights. This was the man, after all, who bravely asserted that video games are not art, who was selected to pen the never-made Sex Pistols movie, who (maybe) dated Oprah Winfrey. He was not just capable of seeing the life in movies, he saw the movie-ness in life, the magic and joy and art that exists in every human interaction, in every day that goes by. To quote the first sentence of his memoir, “[he] was born into the movie of my life,” much as we all are, yet he saw that life is just as miraculous and majestic as movies can be.
Roger Ebert was undoubtedly the most beloved and prolific film writer of his time, but he was also one of our nation’s greatest voices and a wonderful human being. He didn’t just love movies. He loved people. He loved life. His unending sense of wonder and awe never ceased to amaze me. If you get the chance, I’d encourage you all to read his memoir Life Itself. It’s one of the most beautifully-written and inspiring works I’ve ever read.
He has had an incalculable effect on my life and I will miss him dearly. It is strange, I always felt like I sort-of knew him, or I would at some point. Maybe I’m selfish for focusing on how he impacted my life, but I think that if there’s one thing Roger Ebert will be remembered for, it will be his unending love for other people, and how he impacted everyone who knew him, even if they only knew of him.
It’s been hard, but I’ve found these words, some of the finest he ever wrote, of comfort lately. “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” Regardless of where we go after we die, I can’t help but think that I’ll see him at the movies.