“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” – Roger Ebert, Salon.com, Sept. 15, 2011
This is one of the most popular passages Roger Ebert wrote in his later years, and it’s been invoked in more than a few obituaries and tributes since his death last Thursday. There are few things he said that I disagree with more completely. In fact, there are few public figures with whose political or philosophical beliefs I disagreed more completely than Ebert’s. So it’s perhaps a little odd for me to say that there are also few people, living or dead, who have had a more profound influence on the way I view the world than Roger Ebert. I like to think he would have gotten a kick out of the irony.
The reason he had such an influence is because, like me, he loved movies, and he helped me to love them too. But it was more than that, too. This was a man who not only loved movies, but who could express his love for them in a way that made you feel like life made sense because movies were in it. Like they mattered. In the grander scheme of things they don’t, really, but for those of us who let them work on us in the way they’re meant to – and are capable of – they can give us a new prism with which to see the world, and ourselves in it. Ebert got that, and he could put it into words better than anyone.
I discovered Ebert at exactly the right time, at around the age of 13, when I was a movie-crazy, heavyset, awkward-looking middle schooler struggling to figure out where I fit in. Ebert helped me figure it out. Here was a similarly heavyset, awkward-looking guy who not only shared my passion, but became famous for writing and talking about it. This gave me purpose. I read his “Movie Yearbook” obsessively, and stayed up late Saturday nights to catch Siskel & Ebert on our local Fox affiliate (which aired the show at 11:30 p.m.). I internalized his opinions and made them mine (the concept of forming my own never really occurred to me – why bother when his were so well-argued?). When I finally got online, I even stumbled on his email address and contacted him a few times with ridiculous requests and suggestions, such as urging him to see the original Major League after he (rightly) panned the sequel, and trying to find out what his favorite movie of a given year was going to be, simply because I couldn’t wait for his year-end list (good soul that he was, he responded every time). He was a role model, a kindred spirit and, even though I never met him, he felt like a friend. He made me realize that I wanted to be a movie critic when I grew up.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. Though I eventually pursued a Master’s in film studies, it was long after the profession he helped to popularize had fallen out of repute (and financial feasibility) as the Internet gave more amateur critics a voice and killed off more and more newspapers (a development, to his credit, that Ebert embraced wholeheartedly).
And though Ebert himself remained as popular as ever, I was never as enthusiastic about his work as I was in my high school days. He was never the same after Gene Siskel died in 1999. He brought in Richard Roeper as his “At the Movies” co-host, but the chemistry seemed off, and because Roeper lacked Siskel’s intellect (and BS detector) Ebert’s more eccentric (read: nutty) opinions were left unchecked. He became a brand in and of himself, and became known almost as much for his philosophy and politics (which seemed to inform his writing more than they previously had) than for his film criticism. After he was diagnosed with cancer, he started to dole out more positive reviews to more bad movies, which is understandable, as he was likely just happy to be able to watch movies at all. It was at this point that he started a blog, where he could write freely about any subject he chose, where his readers began to look to him more like a sage than a critic. This was the Ebert I knew, no doubt, but it wasn’t my Ebert. This Ebert was too popular, too beloved, too…big. When I was in high school I felt like he was writing just for me. Now, it felt like he was writing for the world. And so, though I continued to read him regularly, I started expanding my critical horizons and he began to occupy a smaller and smaller place in my world.
Regardless, I’ll always be thankful to Ebert, because he helped start me on a journey toward a lifelong passion. Even sitting here, I can recall entire passages from his work with absolute clarity and recite them verbatim. He could turn a phrase as well as any critic alive and was as good as anyone at articulating the experience of watching a movie. He championed and panned films with equal delight, and his enthusiasm in doing both was infectious. He didn’t discriminate. He embraced genre schlock and art-house pictures, and taught me that movies didn’t have to have high aspirations to be good – heck, they didn’t even have to be good at all – as long as they were effective at being what they were. He helped me discover the filmmakers who would shape my understanding of what cinema could be, including Hitchcock, Ozu, Powell & Pressburger, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder (as well as, crucially, George Romero, Sam Raimi and John Carpenter), along with countless others. And even when I disagreed with him (which, especially in his later years, was often), he still gave me new things to consider about the movies and the way I reacted to them.
Ebert’s death on Thursday at the age of 70 came as a shock, and it hit me harder than I thought it might. Part of this was probably due to its unexpectedness, but part of it was because I kind of assumed he would always be around. He could be diagnosed with cancer, lose the lower half of his jaw, be confined to a wheelchair, you name it. But actually die? Impossible. He had movies to see and reviews to write. Death would put a crimp in his schedule.
But, as the newsreel states in Citizen Kane (his favorite movie), death must come to all men. I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of love among critics, filmmakers and readers in the days since, all of which has been incredibly touching. It seems like everyone has their own Ebert story, and for a movie critic to have that kind of impact on people (including many whose movies he panned) shows that this was a man who clearly transcended his craft. For me he was just someone who helped me love movies more and, more importantly, to understand what it meant to really love them. If you know how important movies are to me, you’ll probably understand that that’s no small thing.
One final anecdote. In the summer of 2007, I was sitting at San Diego Airport waiting for my flight to board, when I noticed a severely handicapped person across the corridor, at another gate, waiting to board a flight to Chicago. It soon dawned on me that this was Roger Ebert, and even though I wasn’t reading him as frequently at this point I still wanted to walk up and tell him what an inspiration he had been to me. But he looked frail, and had a group of people around him that I thought might object to my approaching him (I was carrying a copy of Michael Powell’s autobiography, “A Life in Movies,” and I even thought of asking him to sign it – not because he had anything to do with it, but because it just seemed appropriate), so I decided to skip it. Eventually he boarded his flight, and I mine, and I never got the chance to meet him again. The other day I learned that whenever he was approached by fans for a picture, he would ask people to take one with their camera and one with his, for him to keep. I’m certain he would have appreciated my speaking to him. It’s something I’ve regretted ever since.