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A Personal Remembrance of Roger Ebert, A Critic Who Took Movies Personally

This is going to be personal, because with Roger Ebert, the movies were always personal. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” Ebert was always that honest; it was part of what made him great. He didn’t watch films from the detached viewpoint of a scholar or observer — he loved movies, genuinely, and when he loved a film, his commentary of it pulsed with enthusiasm, and when he hated a film, it was like a betrayal. He took it personally.

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That, more than anything, may be the single quality he passed on to his admirers and followers — and make no mistake about it, Roger Ebert influenced anyone who picked up a pen or sat behind a monitor from the mid-’80s on and wrote about film. For many of us, he was the reason we’re doing what we’re doing today — and you can see that in the dozens of testimonials and tributes that have poured out of the Internet yesterday and today. They all recognize the man, his many accomplishments and his fine qualities. But we’re all taking his passing very personally, because for so many of us, the line from Roger Ebert’s work to ours seems so direct.

I remember watching Sneak Previews during its original PBS run; I must’ve been seven or eight, and while I certainly didn’t fully understand the nuances of what these two men were talking about, I knew they were talking about movies, and they loved them just like I did. As was so often the case, however, Ebert’s TV work was the gateway drug to the real addiction: his reviews and commentary for the Chicago Sun-Times. I was given my first copy of his annual compendium of reviews and interviews (originally dubbed the Movie Home Companion) as a birthday present in 1988, and since my birthday fell late in the year, it was the one gift I would ask for — and get — every year. (I still do; 25 years and counting.) Particularly in the early, pre-Internet years, it was a birthday treat to be consumed hungrily; I would read it cover to cover, and then refer to it all year, memorizing titles and key passages, my early viewpoints on film molded by Ebert, the best teacher I didn’t know.

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This was, I have discovered, not unique. Strangely, I just finished the Ebert biography/analysis Rule of Thumb by Todd Rendleman a couple of weeks ago, and was shocked to read, in the author’s intro, that his introduction to Ebert was nearly identical to mine. The tributes and obits of the past two days have indicated a similar experience throughout the film writing community. Simply put, he taught us how to write the sturdy, daily-newspaper-style 500-750 word film review. Nobody did it better. Kael may have been more verbose, Sarris more erudite, but Ebert wrote directly, succinctly, and brilliantly. He knew how much text to spend on plot, how to analyze without alienating, how to find the right way in, and (perhaps most impressively) how to find the right way out. His kickers were the best in the business. A few examples:

  • Nashville: “This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn’t flatter us but it does love us.”
  • Apocalypse Now: “Remember the weird beauty of the massed helicopters lifting over the trees in the long shot, and the insane power of Wagner’s music, played loudly during the attack, and you feel what Coppola was getting at: Those moments as common in life as art, when the whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance.”
  • Do the Right Thing: “I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all of the characters. Lee does not ask us to forgive them, or even to understand everything they do, but he wants us to identify with their fears and frustrations. Do the Right Thing doesn’t ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair.”
  • Monster’s Ball: “Monster’s Ball demonstrates that to explain all its mysteries, a movie would have to limit itself to mysteries that can be explained. As for myself, as Leticia rejoined Hank in the last shot of the movie, I was thinking about her as deeply and urgently as about any movie character I can remember.”
  • Million Dollar Baby: “Movies are so often made of effects and sensation these days. This one is made of three people and how their actions grow out of who they are and why. Nothing else. But isn’t that everything?”
  • Funny People: “After an enormously successful career as a producer, this is Apatow’s third film as a director, after The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Of him it can be said: He is a real director. He’s still only 41. So here we go.”

His style is simple and punchy, as you’d expect from someone who always identified himself, proudly, as a “newspaper man.” But it is also emotional, powerful, and sometimes downright poetic. He combined intellectual acumen and drinking-buddy vernacular (even if, as we discovered, he hadn’t had a drop in decades). That was, as many others have pointed out, perhaps the key to his success and celebrity. He wasn’t a New York critic, bitchy and mean like Rex Reed or John Simon, and he wasn’t an LA critic, cozy and eager to please. He and Gene Siskel were Midwesterners; Roger wrote for the working-class Sun-Times, and when he appeared on your television, chubby, bespectacled, and sweater-vested, he was like your smart uncle who was always recommending something great you’d never heard of.

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The many tributes from other film writers inspired and fueled by Ebert’s work have included touching stories, painting the portrait of a dean to the critical community, who encouraged his colleagues and always had a kind word. Due to proximity, my own interactions with him were more limited; our 2011 interview was conducted via email due to his ongoing illness, though the thrill of being complimented for “such good questions” was matched only by picking up a copy of his Little Movie Glossary years earlier and discovering an entry I’d submitted. Both remain points of pride (as you can tell), but neither really matters; had they not happened, I would still feel as though I “knew” Roger, as we all did. He lived his life through his words, first in the reviews, then on the blog and through social media. He didn’t hide behind a forced intellectualism (though he was fiercely intellectual). He put it all out there, and wrote about the movies, the world, and himself with honesty, force, and beauty. That’s something we can all strive for.

And only a writer as gifted as Roger Ebert could have left these, as the final words in the final piece published before his passing: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

See what I mean about the kickers?