I thought that my next post would be a review of the Evil Dead remake. Or my review of David Cronenberg’s underrated but still not great Cosmopolis. I did not think it would be this. I did not think I would have to type this for a long time.
Roger Ebert, long time film critic of the “Chicago Sun Times” and the first critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, died today after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.
As I typed that preceding sentence, I felt more sadness than I logically should. I never met him in person, and there would have been absolutely no chance when we could have. He would never have read this blog – there was no reason for him to ever read it. But still, I feel as though I have lost a dear friend, a man whom I could always go to when I had troubles, and who would know exactly what to say. He was a film critic first and foremost. But he wrote about far more – life, death, love, travels – and did so with more insight and wit than any of his contemporaries.
I could talk about his accomplishments; his Pulitzer Prize, his nationally syndicated TV show, his NC-17 scripted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which he was proud of his entire life. I could talk about his struggles with cancer and how it took his voice.
But what’s the point of regurgitating information everyone knows? What matters at this point (as it does for everyone when they shuffle off this mortal coil) is the impact that he left on the people who read him. I cannot speak for everyone. But I can speak for myself, and describe the profound impact he had on me.
Honestly, I am not sure the first time I ever saw him. By the 1990s, he was such a huge part of popular culture that practically every single show referenced Siskel and Ebert to some degree.I absorbed him through a kind of osmosis. If I had to venture a guess, it was probably from this Sesame Street clip.
When you have become popular enough to share screen time with the Muppets, you have accomplished something in your life. But, as a kid, I did not see the value of it. It was another little bit featuring characters who were there to teach me my ABCs. Nor did I really appreciate his show with Siskel when it was at his peak. In many ways, I still feel it was the wrong format for their profession. That is more due to the restrictive nature of television; Siskel and Ebert were never given the chance to really explore films, with only a few exceptions. Besides, I was a young kid at the time. What possible use would a Nickelodeon watching child have for a show about film criticism? Especially a film criticism show that was forced to reduce its hosts to latter day Roman emperors judging fighters at the Colosseum?
I didn’t really rediscover Ebert until later in his career, after he announced his cancer diagnosis. His writing was almost a shock to discover and far removed from the mental image I had built of him. Someone who had more to say than could be expressed in a hand gesture? I am sure it began with me stumbling to his website, but I was hooked on everything the second I found it. I read every review I could – even for the films I had never heard of. I was still young, so reading his reviews of long forgotten New Hollywood films was as bizarre to my peers as if I had walked into school with a nose ring. But I loved it and found that he was broadening my horizons. His “Great Movies” series was one that I treasured, and still use to judge what belongs in my Netflix queue. I don’t know if I would have watched Dark City or The Third Man without his recommendations. Certainly, I would not bother taking a chance with any unknown film.
And, with increasing urgency, I started reading his blog. I saw his ups and downs, and his entries about the illness that cost him his voice. When I read that, I was not sure what was going to happen. I didn’t expect it would lead to the most insightful and revealing writing of his career. His blog entries became just as important as his reviews to me, as I tried to imagine the life he was living and writing about. I still cannot, and admired the tenacity he would always display. Even when he appeared on TV, he did not try to hide who he was. In fact, after the famed “Esquire” photos were published, Ebert said that he had nothing to hide. “No one looks perfect,” he said. “And this is how I look.” Look at this interview – he says just as much with his eyes and head as he does with his computer. And he’s dead on about what makes a great film – it’s a feeling I still cannot explain.
When he announced that his cancer had returned a few days ago, I knew that things would change, but I had hope that he would still be around to talk about the films he was watching, the films he was using to alleviate the pain from his treatment, and the support he was getting from his family and friends. I was looking forward to reading all of it and debating him. I didn’t expect to always agree, but I knew I would learning something from his reviews.
I still don’t always agree with him. He gave my two favorite films (Brazil and Edward Scissorhands, for those who don’t remember) two stars (more than the two and a half stars awarded to Gigli) while promoting trash like Crash and Lost in Translation, even insulting those who stated they could not see the merit in them. And even when I agreed with his low score, I sometimes disliked his approach. I gave Kick Ass a bad review, yet I thought his objection to the film would have been better served in a turn of the century Christian revival meeting than a serious discussion about what the film accomplishes and how it accomplishes anything. And his blanket statement that no video game could ever be art was something that I (and many others) simply could not comprehend.
But this is all ignoring how much Ebert impacted countless writers (including me), especially as the internet rose to replace news papers in offering film criticisms. Listing everyone who can claim Ebert as an influence would take the rest of the night. But I can easily summarize what attracted me to his writing. He was erudite, he was witty, he was insightful, and he knew what was needed when he wrote. Nothing more, nothing less.
If there was one thing he wrote that I would pick as a “favorite,” it would be this journal entry on his struggles with alcoholism that was later reprinted in Life Itself. I had never known that he had those problems in his life. A man as successful as him, who did what he loved, still felt the need to escape using alcohol? And had hit rock bottom? It came as a shock, but what was equally shocking was how poignant and revealing he decided to be about that moment in his life. And honest; he didn’t hold back about that experience. But unlike lesser writers, he did not try to moralize or preach. His alcoholism wasn’t a ticket to become a Hubert Selby Jr character, nor was it something he would use to tell people to stay away from intoxicating beverages. It happened, and here’s what he took away from it. His approach to criticism was much the same way. That’s more effective than what a lot of critics do these days. Look at Room 237, which spends all its time trying to crack a code to solve The Shining without ever explaining why it’s an important and great film. Look at the number of critics who insist on wearing their emotions on their sleeves and think an experience stops there, like Harry Knowles. Look at Armond White, who seems to think that going against everyone else indicates that he’s a more highly evolved form of life. None of them would be capable of writing that blog entry.
When Ebert posted his last journal entry on his website, I posted the following comment. Many others commented, wishing him a speedy recovery and looking forward to his new writings. The comment is live, but I doubt he personally ever saw it. I didn’t think it would be the last chance anyone would have to talk to him:
“Sometimes I thought your reviews were dead on. Sometimes I vehemently disagreed with what you wrote. But I treasured every word.
I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but thank you for everything.”
I don’t think there’s anything else I can say. The only thing I can do is repeat that last sentence. Thank you. Thank you for everything.
Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert.