I don’t know when I became aware of Roger Ebert. I think like anyone who was already a known public figure when I was born; he’s always just been there. His name was on movie poster, in commercials or cartoons, comedians and late night talk shows through most of the 90’s. Any time you saw a fake trailer, “Two thumbs up” was always thrown in for good measure. Ebert’s became name synonyms with film.
As a kid growing up, I didn’t have many friends. Movies became my friends. On the weekends I would go to my local library and rent whatever movies I could find, the longer, the better. My first viewing of Citizen Kane and Raging Bull came when I was ten or eleven. I loved movies and loved discussing movies. But no one else in Jr. High was interested in discussing Serpico or On the Waterfront. Podcast didn’t exist and the Internet was in its infancy. The best I had was listening to other people talk about movies. And for me, those people were Siskel and Ebert.
What made Siskel and Ebert great (and it’s something Ebert continued after Siskel’s death) is they championed different kinds of movies, but they still loved the main stream. They weren’t above praising the big Hollywood film, but they would also take time to champion a hard to find foreign film, a low budget documentary or a classic long forgotten. They would name Hoop Dreams as their number one film of the year, when their show was owned by Disney.
As I grew up, Siskel passed on, Ebert left the show and soon “At The Movies” became something totally different. But now with the Internet I could read Ebert’s reviews. I didn’t always agree with Ebert, but like the show, if I disagreed with his takes on a movie, I’d have to ask myself “Why?” And did I have something to back that up? That didn’t mean that he was right and I was wrong or vice versa, or that I needed to justify why he hated a movie I loved, but it taught me to better understand a film and what makes a film work for me that doesn’t work for others and how to verbalize that in a group or conversational setting. He was also one of the first critics I’d ever seen go back and re-watch a film to review it again. Admitting perhaps he got it wrong the first time, or would further back of his claim of “This is great.” Or “This is still terrible.” But to go back showed me the value of a re-watch.
I began to learn about him beyond the man on television and in the newspaper, that he had film critics he admired and filmmakers he adored. He ran his own festival so that he could show movies he found interesting and transportive. I also learned that he was an atheist. As someone who has often struggled with the questions of “What happens when we die?” “Is there a God?” “What is death like?” It was the Ebert’s article “I do not fear death.” That brought me closure. Not something written by a religious scholar, a holy man or a scientist. It was the words of a film critic I admired for years that brought me the most peace. But even with his views, he also showed that you could bring in different perspectives to enjoy a movie. A movie doesn’t need to hold to you belief system to be good. I point to his review of Tree of Life a movie about a conversation about life and God. Or Life of Pi a film about belief. Films that many critics who also count themselves at atheist respected but really lambasted for their “religious” themes or found “heavy handed.” Ebert showed that as a critic, you need to get past your own perspective and watch the film as it presents itself. Just because the characters don’t believe what you believe doesn’t make something flawed.
Also Ebert showed that you could laugh at yourself, making appearances on both SNL and The Critic. Ebert was never above mocking himself or his persona. People often made fun of him for his weight, but he was always willing to make fun of himself for the same reason.
There’s a sad irony that at a time where few people could reach the whole world to speak about film, Ebert was perhaps the loudest voice of all. But with the rise of the Internet and podcasting especially, where everyone can talk about film, Ebert lost his voice completely. Ebert would have made an amazing podcast when “At the Movies” changed. But he didn’t let his illness stop him. Perhaps becoming a larger figure on the Internet, speaking his mind about politics, religion and health. He broke beyond talking about films.
When the weekends would arrive and new movies hit theaters. I always have four critics whose reviews I checked. Not because I agree with them, but because I respect their opinions, they make me a better movie viewer and inform me on how to do film criticism. Yesterday I lost one of my four, and I know no one will step in to replace him. Thank you Roger.