Yesterday afternoon I was on the phone with a co-worker, discussing some mundane issue about our database, when an email popped up that caught my eye. As I was quickly skimming its contents, I felt my stomach drop. I immediately told my co-worker that I was going to have to call her back. Much to my dismay, CNN was announcing that just one day after he announced he was going to have to scale back his workload, renowned critic Roger Ebert had lost his battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
I was momentarily surprised at how much this affected me; the news gave me an instant and visceral reaction. Why was I so strongly affected by the death of a man I didn’t know? Of course, once I contemplated it, the answer was obvious. Though I had never really thought about it or formally put it into words, Roger Ebert is the reason that I write this blog.
When I was a kid and was just discovering my passion for movies, it was Roger Ebert (and his then partner Gene Siskel) that shepherded me though the world of film criticism. It’s hard to believe, but back then critics were not as ubiquitous as they are today. The internet has made it easy to find out what a lot of professionals and amateurs think about any given pop culture project. But back in the eighties, it was a little harder to find out if a movie was good or bad without going to see it or asking your friends. Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies became required viewing to me; they were the first people that made me realize the true magic of movies and that you could actually make a career out of talking about something that you love. While the good people of Chicago were well aware of the work of Siskel and Ebert, their television show elevated them to America’s critics. They helped us decide which movies to watch and which movies to skip. They often didn’t agree and bickered and quibbled over movies the way that only good friends can, but their passion for movies and respect for each other always shown through. They not only discussed big budget mainstream movies, but helped introduce me to the world of art house cinema and cultivated my budding fascination with independent films. They created and trademarked the phrase “Two Thumbs Up,” which has become a central part of our cultural and critical lexicon. They were critics, but they were also fans.
Though I think my personal preferences better lined up with Siskel, I was always drawn to Roger Ebert. Part of this may simply be because of my more prolonged exposure to Ebert, as Siskel passed away in 1999. But I think it was Ebert’s no-nonsense style that really appealed to me. He made critiquing look easy and excelled at making his reviews accessible; you didn’t feel like you needed a degree in cinematic arts to understand what he was talking about. He took films at face value and judged them on what they set out to do, not what he thought they should have set out to do. Though I try not to read what other people have written before I critique a movie, once I jotted down my original thoughts I always sought out Ebert’s blog to see what he thought and what points he highlighted. We didn’t always agree, but just reading his reviews became something of a touchstone for me. Ebert was an amazing writer – clear, concise and he knew how to turn a phrase – and embraced new technology. He was an avid tweeter and it was through his use of Twitter that I felt that I really got to know Ebert as a man, not just as a critic. He was a champion of causes that were important to him and in his later years shared more about his personal life and his ongoing battle with the disease that would eventually rob him of his voice and then his life. Through all his struggles, he continued to be a champion of movies. In what would be his final essay, it is not a surprise that his closing words were “I’ll see you at the movies.”
I am not the only person to be deeply saddened by Ebert’s passing – the internet has been abuzz since the news broke yesterday with many, inside the industry and not, recalling their fond memories and dusting off classic Ebert clips and articles. Among my favorites:
- Mental Floss looks at 10 films that Ebert really hated. I totally agree with him on The Brown Bunny.
- The producers behind the documentary about Ebert, Life Itself, vow to finish the film.
- Paste looks at the reaction on Twitter to Ebert’s passing.
- Ebert’s appearance on the animated program The Critic (an underrated show):
- The writers over at The A.V. Club discuss what Roger Ebert meant to them.
- A clip of Ebert’s legendary scathing review of North:
- Ebert’s touching tribute to his friend Gene Siskel:
- Yahoo has eight facts you may not have known about Ebert.
- Esquire wrote a wonderful profile of Ebert back in 2010.
- This entry by Linda Holmes over at NPR does a much better job of paying tribute to Ebert than I ever could.
- And finally, Ebert discussing film criticism:
The entertainment industry lost a legend yesterday and the world lost a good man. It is hard to imagine life without Roger Ebert; the only solace I take from his passing is that he doesn’t have to continue to fight any longer and he can be at peace. I like to think of him and Siskel, dear friends reunited, critiquing heaven.
Thank you, Roger Ebert. You will be missed.