Goodbye, Roger

I say this without hyperbole: outside members of my family, Roger Ebert had the greatest influence and impact on my life. He taught me everything. And now he is gone.

Roger Ebert

I’m having difficulty processing this. It was only yesterday that he announced his “leave of presence,” semi-retiring, but not really, from writing, which prompted me to joke about his legendary work ethic. “Even when he stops working, he keeps working,” I quipped on Twitter. And now, today, I quipped again: “Even in death, he’ll still find time to churn out a couple reviews a week.” He was a man who so loved movies and so loved writing, nothing could keep him away from either. Not cancer, not life-altering surgery, not illnesses and complications and age. Only the act of not living could stop him.

It’s a passion I not only admired, I understood. While I could never dream of achieving his kind of output – writing five to ten reviews a week eventually burned me out something fierce in my early days of writing; I have no idea how he did it for four decades – I saw myself in his obsessions. There’s a misunderstanding among some people who think film critics hate movies and can’t wait to tear them down. On the contrary. Film critics like Roger, like his colleagues, like the generation he inspired, like myself, we love movies. We love them so much we’re compelled to talk, write, argue about them, every chance we get. We’re elated when they’re wonderful, betrayed when they’re terrible. These feelings we must share out of excitement.

Roger (while I only encountered the man in passing a few times, he was the sort of man who was on a first name basis with the world), along with his television partner/enemy Gene Siskel, taught me in my youth to embrace that obsession, and as his writing became more readily available both in print and online, he taught me how to best express that obsession. Sneak Previews was my first film school.

And when Siskel and Ebert left that show to start their own in syndication, I followed, finding little value in their PBS replacements. It’s not enough to talk about movies or crack wise about them; the passion has to be there, as well as the knowledge underneath the opinion. Roger and Gene had both in spades. That’s what kept me with them. Even when I adamantly disagreed with them (Ebert far more than Siskel, whose tastes aligned with mine more consistently), I watched, and learned.

This is the mark of a great critic, a value I apply when seeking out new writers to follow. Do I love reading your words even when I find your opinion to be so very, very wrong? If yes, you’ve hooked me for life. And above all the critics I read, Roger was the champ at knowing how to make a review a good read, not just a good rant. The words could be poetry, the putdowns delicious, the personal anecdotes he’d weave into his reviews humanizing.

Indeed, when I started writing on a full time basis and found myself trying to discover my style, Roger’s words guided my own. I stole so much from the man, I owe him royalties. To this day, I still use the occasional “consider” to open a sentence.

Consider his humility. It also showed me the way. Here was a giant in his industry, unarguably the most famous and powerful film critic to ever breathe, yet he lived squarely among the people. He used the internet to interact with his readers like none before him (and turned his blog into one of the rare corners of the web where the comments section was intelligent and vibrant). He celebrated the work of his rivals and encouraged the next generation. To him, there was no sense in competition in the film critic industry. The more voices, the better – again, the passion for movies made him eager to increase, never squash, discussion. When he became ill, rather than shut down his website, he opened it up to writers he believed in. Here he was, not only sharing his love for film, but his love for the written word. I realize now, in reflection, just how deeply this attitude toward openness has shaped my actions and philosophy for years.

And yet he remained a giant. I try to maintain a “they’re just regular folks” attitude toward celebrities yet have always treated Roger as something special, far more than just “regular folks.” I was an adult when my name appeared in his old Answer Man column twice, was even older when I brushed by him at his annual film festival, but each time I felt as giddy as a boy who just met Superman. I’m not one for autographs but cherish my signed copy of The Great Movies II, which he inscribed with my name and the phrase “movie lover,” which he no doubt did for everyone but my god, how wonderful it felt to be called that by The Man Himself.

And now The Man Himself is gone. He left behind thousands of reviews, millions of words, and a generation who can’t stop talking about movies because he showed them how great talking about movies can be. We’ll miss you, Roger. The world is lesser without you.

The balcony is closed.

Ebert Autograph

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