In memoriam: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

When I was about ten years old I discovered Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which seemed to me an invaluable resource.  I was tickled by the idea that you could look up any title and learn, in the course of a few terse sentences and a handy star rating, whether it was worth seeing or not.  Then I discovered Roger Ebert.  I came across a collection of his print reviews, which were then being published annually as Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion, at the local bookstore.  I was immediately confused.  I saw that he used a star rating system similar to Leonard Maltin’s, but these were not capsule reviews.  They were, like, long.  Nevertheless, he liked Poltergeist (or at least had given it three stars), and I liked Poltergeist, so it seemed he could be trusted.  My parents, bless them, bought me the book.

It wasn’t until several years later that I actually sat down and read Ebert’s reviews instead of just scanning them for the star rating.  I was hooked.  While I had seen snippets of Siskel and Ebert on TV, I had never really thought critically about the films I watched until I read Ebert in print.  I had never before read anything that took films this seriously; consequently, I had never attempted to write seriously about film.  Ebert was the first to teach me that film criticism was more than just slapping together a star rating and a few sentence fragments.  In his deep, reverent love for his subject, he also taught me that movies could be more than just entertainments, something I think I already knew but had never comprehended.  In reading Ebert’s work (which I proceeded to do, voraciously, for the next six years), I learned not only that films could be works of art but also that film criticism could be an art in its own right.  I learned to be open-minded about what I watched and how I evaluated it.  He introduced me to Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, inspired me to seek out films like Cries and Whispers and Walkabout, and then helped me begin to think about them.  And, inspired by Ebert’s seemingly effortless, plainspoken Midwestern prose style—his humor, his succinctness, his pristine clarity—I attempted, fumblingly, to develop my own voice as a writer. 

In short, more than any other writer, maybe even more than any other person, Ebert shaped my understanding and appreciation of movies during my formative years.  I eventually gravitated toward other critics: Pauline Kael, Glenn Kenny, J. Hoberman, Stephanie Zacharek.  But I always kept an eye on Ebert.  Whenever I discovered a new favorite movie, I would invariably wonder, “what did Ebert think of this?”  Whether I agreed or disagreed with his assessments (and our tastes diverged more and more over time: only two and a half stars for The Master!?), I always maintained the highest respect for him.  He called himself “the Movie Answer Man,” and it really did seem that there was nothing beyond the scope of his knowledge.  That Ebert’s voice will no longer be part of the cacophony of voices arguing passionately, brilliantly, and eloquently about movies is a loss to all of us who looked to him for answers.    

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