Updated April 4, 2013: One day after I posted this article, The Chicago Sun-Times announced that Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70.
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Roger Ebert announced late last night what many had feared - his so-called "hip surgery" that resulted in an unusual respite from his torrent of tweets proved to be in fact a recurrence of cancer, the same disease that helped ravage his jaw and left him unable to speak.
Typically, I write over 200 reviews a year for the Sun-Times that are
carried by Universal Press Syndicate in some 200 newspapers. Last year, I
wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post
or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now, which
is why I'm taking what I like to call "a leave of presence."
in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My
intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to
a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's
more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about
doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.
For those of us of a particular age, Ebert was the quintessential film critic. Sure, there were newspaper guys and other people on TV, but with his partner Siskel, while growing up he was probably the only critic I could name. Years before hearing about the Cahiers crew, or Sarris, or even Kael, there were these two guys on TV wagging their thumbs about.
Naturally, I liked the round one with glasses.
Before the Internet-as-we-know-it, in the magical time known as the 1990s, I began to take more seriously some of the films they chatted about between the blockbusters. It was revelatory when Gene and Roger sat down to talk about the "Tarantino Generation" - in this full sequence, these two articulated something that had been broiling in me, a feeling that QT had somehow ignited a new way of dealing with cinema.
Now, while it didn't quite work out that way, it did lead me to think even more critically about movies. I'd soon find myself reading Ebert's reviews in full, and quickly realized the divide between his role as a TV critic (needing to say something pithy, often over-the-top) and his highly personal, yet often quite nuanced think pieces that would serve as his reviews.
When I started going to TIFF as an accredited critic in 1997, I'd see Ebert wandering the hallway. We'd chat briefly, and joke that he'd never talk about what he thought of a film after a screening ("It's what I get paid for!").
At around the same time, I was working on my Master's Thesis, concentrating on the the epistemological foundation of film criticism, drawing on the works of Noel Carrol and David Bordwell. Heady stuff, to be sure, and not exactly something that tends to come up during talk of The Host. I chose to breakdown a full review by Ebert for one of the chapters, looking at his take on Saving Private Ryan.
As a thesis is technically a published work, I needed to have his permission to include it as part of what I was to defend. I managed to track down his email address somehow (Yahoo search? BBS posting?), and wrote him to his Compuserve account. He was gracious about it, and even encouraging, typing "Great, send me whatever you write!"
Realizing that a Master's degree in Philosophy wasn't going to take the world by storm, I nonetheless was heartened by this throw away comment. As part of defending, we had to put up posters advertising the fact, so that, technically, any member of the faculty or student body could come to challenge my "findings".
Naturally, I chose a slightly cheeky title, and included the amazing poster quote from Mr. Ebert.
Alas, when I finally finished, I did write him to see if he wanted a PDF of the work I'd spent a year or so on. He politely declined, saying he had "lots to read". Understandable, of course. Still, I took it that his first reaction was to be encouraging, and only upon reflection did he (correctly) conclude that reading the intellectual ramblings of some grad student wasn't quite how he should be spending his time - there were films to watch!
I'd see him again over the years at TIFF, always making an effort to say hi to him and his devoted wife Chaz. Even after he had lost his voice, we'd still bump into one another, I'd shake his hand, and he'd give a thumbs up. I highly doubt he'd have any memory of who the hell I was, but it at least made me feel better for knowing the guy.
As I wrote about in another post on my own site, a few years back Roger was doing a Twitter thing at TIFF, asking virtual questions (his Mac speaking the words) to a series of high profile Tweeters including Rainn Wilson. I'd just seen Mike Leigh's Another Year, and was buzzing from the experience. I told him how much I loved it, and Roger did his "happy dance", one of the ways he communicates non-verbally, to share in my enthusiasm.
I reminded him of how much he'd helped me years back, and he gave me a thumbs up and patted me on the shoulder. He then motioned to a woman who was taking pictures, and pointed at her to shoot a shot of the two of us.
Grabbing my hand, he pulled me into frame, the way the best directors do. The shot was captured, me looking bleary eyed and disheveled mid-fest, him staring directly in to the lens like a pro.
There will be those that point to Ebert as being symptomatic of the
"blog" culture of film writing, a "dumbing down" of the art of
criticism. I'd say the opposite in the case, between his Great Movies
lists, his festival, and even his collection of Film Duds, he's helped
influenced generations of writers to take this stuff seriously, to probe
cinema at its deepest levels, and to open our eyes to the possibility
of the medium.
I agree with Ebert's review conclusions 40% of
the time, but I learn from them 100% of the time. His turns of phrase,
and his ability to stay original and relevant after literally tens of
thousands of similarly constructed reviews is both humbling and
There will be plenty written about the man when he finally goes. He's made it clear that there's still plenty for him to do, from his new endeavours to keeping up with the slew of reviews he does every year. Still, I figured in my own way I'd celebrate the man while he's still around to maybe read it, to thank him on behalf of many that find his writing often inspiring, sometimes confounding, but always something worth reckoning.
Roger, get better. For as long as some of us will be watching movies, it's the light of your work that will help illuminate them.
Plus, I cannot believe you gave the atrocious The Impossible four stars, and yet totally hated on Reign of Fire. Ridiculous, sir, ridiculous.