It is impossible for me to talk to you at length about how and why I love movies without mentioning Roger Ebert. What’s amazing is that I’m one of probably millions of people who would say this.
When I was fifteen, I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time, and that was when I realized that a movie wasn’t just something you saw with your buddies on Friday night. Movies could be that, too, of course, but they were something more. There’s something just as authorial about a great movie as a great book; Tarantino’s stamp is on Pulp Fiction as much as Hemingway’s is on The Sun Also Rises. There’s something as majestic and imposing and awe-inspring about movies on the big screen as a Romantic landscape; There Will Be Blood and Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia and Days of Heaven are artistic cousins to Guernica and The Raft of the Medusa and John Constable and Delacroix. There’s something as educational and philosophical to be found in movies as in any classroom; you can learn just as much about existentialism from Bergman as you can from Sartre. There’s something to the way movies hold a mirror up to our daily lives; the reason Woody Allen’s best films and Lost in Translation resonate with us is because of how they don’t shy away from our neuroses and our sadness and our joy. On top of all of that, they could also be entertaining, hilarious, scary, and sad.
I wouldn’t have learned any of this though, if it weren’t for Roger Ebert. After I saw Pulp Fiction, I wanted to devour as much as I could about the movies, and there was really only one logical place to turn. It’s why my love of the movies comes from the same source as so many others: Roger Ebert was everywhere. He was on TV, he was on the internet, he was in the paper and in books, and you knew when you saw a commercial advertising “Two Thumbs Up” that there was a good chance the movie advertised would be excellent.
I made it my habit to read Ebert’s new reviews every week. I tried to watch his groundbreaking show on the weekends, when it aired in syndication, usually at something like 1:30 am. (This is the “Ebert and Roeper” version I’m talking about; I was too late for Siskel but have seen enough clips from that version and from their appearances on talk shows to have an appreciation.) My parents got me two volumes of his essays on “Great Movies,” pulled from a biweekly column he used to write, for Christmas. There were 100 essays, each on a different movie, in each volume; if you know me, you know I acted like just having seen Pulp Fiction and GoodFellas was enough for me to try to lord my intellect over you, while in reality I’d probably seen something like ten out of the 200, and my “intellect” was just a front, because in truth I really knew nothing. (Of course my parents and friends could see right through me anyway.) In any event, those 200 movies were a great guidepost—I made it my goal to watch all of them, a goal still unrealized—and before I could drive and before Netflix was ubiquitous I was dragging my parents to Blockbuster so I could check out something from the back corner of the store that was in Swedish, Japanese, or French. Those books taught me what made Ozu’s still camera, Kurosawa’s shooting at the sun, and Cassavetes’ use of family members as actors so revolutionary. They taught me about film history; just by reading a few essays I could decipher what made the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism so important. They served as an example of how someone who looked so dweeby and bookish could understand and praise what was so rebellious and provocative about Do the Right Thing. Ebert would support a movie or a director—Spike Lee, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog come to mind—and you could be sure that those movies and directors would be new and challenging. (As evidenced by his lengthy career and spots with Howard Stern, I think it’s pretty clear that Ebert was so, so much cooler than first impressions may have indicated.)
More interestingly, perhaps, those books told me what Roger Ebert thought of the movies. His reflections on La dolce vita, which he first saw when he was something like a hedonistic college student, are notable here: it had a different impact on him as an older man than it did when he was in his twenties. That he had been writing about such personal matters on his blog in the years after his botched cancer surgery that took his voice is not surprising considering how first-person pretty much all of his reviews were. I can’t find it right now, but I remember Ebert writing—and I’m paraphrasing—one time that it was basically impossible to separate his ideas, politics, and beliefs from his reviews. One of his rules for criticism—his first rule—was to “[a]dvise the readers well,” meaning: Don’t tell readers what they like but rather tell them what you like and let them decide. Another rule of his was basically to review each movie on its own terms: no critic in his right mind would think Godard and Michael Bay deserve the same kind of commentary or that audiences seek them out just because they were made using the same medium. It was principles like these, so much harder to put into practice than you’d think, that made Roger Ebert legendary: His respect for the movies, for the people who make them, and for the people who see them were equally strong. His thoughts on God, death, video games, politics, using a computer to talk for him, and whatever else that he had been sharing recently informed his columns, and vice-versa. Literally and figuratively, he refused to hide, in what has to be one of the bravest and most honest ways to live a public life. Obviously I won’t be the only one saying that he strengthened his voice despite the cruel irony that he lost the ability to speak.
In the last few years, once he returned to criticism when he had the strength, I often found his reviews to be, on average, more positive than virtually anyone else’s. It was easy to say that, after his near-death experience, he had received a new lease on life, and simply had no incentive or desire to be critical. That’s an over-simplification, of course. There were still plenty of movies that he wouldn’t recommend, and his ability to be critical without being angry or annoyed (eh, this last part isn’t entirely true, just read his review of North) was just another outgrowth of those principles I mentioned above. Put better than I can articulate:
That’s about right. Roger Ebert was a champion of good movies, not a critic of bad ones. He made the movies, and the experience of seeing them, better. Even though the balcony is closed, the show must go on. And all I can say is: Thanks.
Note: Ebert’s website is predictably struggling with traffic overload right now, so hopefully I’ll be able to update once things get back on track, but here’s a brief index of some of his greatest hits:
Here’s Ebert’s most recent list of his ten favorite movies of all time, as compiled for last year’s once-a-decade Sight and Sound list:
Here’s some old appearances with Howard Stern:
Here’s Siskel and Ebert arguing over Boogie Nights: