The first book about movies I ever remember reading was Roger Ebert’s Video Companion. It was the 1993 Edition. We disagreed about the James Bond series, of which I was uniformly positive, he was more measured. This was a time in my life in which I judged someone’s worth by how much they liked Bond movies and if someone did not, gosh, I didn’t even want to know them. That I continued to read this book was beyond my comprehension. How could I disagree with this person without him being wrong? I’d always been an avid consumer of movies but it was Roger Ebert who showed me how to refine it. I think back to a time when I detested black and white, subtitles and movies with plots. I was watching the wrong movies. Roger Ebert showed me which ones to watch.
There are going to be plenty of obituaries about the great man, written by finer writers than I and by people who knew him. I never knew Ebert but his writing made me feel like I did (I recognize the difference). His gift was the ability to funnel his feelings about a movie into comprehensible language. That is the goal for any critic but no one achieved it as often as Ebert. Unlike Sarris or Farber his reviews didn’t read like clinical autopsies and unlike Kael they weren’t jazzy personal reflections. They were an entertaining synthesis of all of them. He spoke from the heart equipped with a heart that was smarter than everyone else’s and operated with a flawless logic and ability to persuade. When he championed a filmmaker like Scorsese or Ozu, that feeling was palpable. When he panned a movie he could be vicious but he took little joy in it. Some critics live for the chance to snark out, Ebert did it solemnly. He liked movies so much, bad ones disappointed him. We weren’t being lectured at or pandered to and we certainly weren’t being sold anything. We were seeing the movie with Roger Ebert and he told us what he thought.
I don’t have a formal film education but I have a book called “The Great Movies” written by Ebert that I was given more than ten years ago. It’s a series of essays about 100 of the greatest movies ever made. There are now three such volumes, this was the first. When I heard about Ebert’s death I pulled it out of the book shelf and looked at the inscription. I was dismayed to be reminded that book is in bad shape, read too often, and the spine is disconnected from the flesh of the pages. “Nick, I thought you might appreciate learning more about Ebert’s views on the greatest movies. I hope you give it a thumbs up! I love you, Your Dad. Christmas 2002, Memphis, TN” is written in the inside cover. To say that I “might appreciate” this book is an understatement. It is without question, the most personally important book that I own about movies. When I received it I had seen perhaps twenty of the movies chronicled inside. In the decade since I’ve had it, I’ve seen all of them, all of the others in the other volumes and a great deal more, many of which I have been steered to by Ebert. Though my mother comes in a close second, there is no person who has introduced me to better movies than this man. And no other man, through his brilliant writing, has introduced me to other great film writers.
Forget about the television show which, by the way, I will defend as a great entertainment and a level of debate that is sadly absent these days, but that eulogy was due fourteen years ago when Gene Siskel, Ebert’s tuning fork, died. Ebert was a great writer first, a Pulitzer Prize winner before he was ever a television personality, regardless of how good he was on TV (the wonderful site siskelandebert.org is a fantastic resource for the program’s history; watch the pair’s appearance on “Later with Bob Costas” for a small indication of how engaging they were and mourn, by-and-large, the loss of intelligence on the air waves). My story is not unique. There is hardly a film critic on the internet who wasn’t at least partially inspired by Ebert. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of film writing that’s for sure. Just as certain is that, as of April 4, 2013, he was the final critic in that atmosphere to shuffle off this mortal coil. For many people, Roger Ebert was film criticism. Are they both dead now?
In despairing moments, and under the shadow of a calendar year in which the world lost both Ebert and Andrew Sarris, I can be convinced that they are. However, it’s important to remember that there are still David Thompson, bell hooks, Anthony Lane and Manohla Dargis fighting the good fight. And while it’s unlikely that a film critic will attain the cultural status that Pauline Kael and Siskel and Ebert did ever again, outside of the wonderful writing, much of which can be found at rogerebert.com, Ebert’s legacy is his common voice, his populist insight that never abandoned intelligence or apologized for it. He wasn’t the shallow “May Tinees” of the early days of newspaper criticism but he wasn’t a film school elitist either, he was the movie goer we all wished we could be and, with his help, had hope of becoming. It’s that voice that has inspired an army of writers ready to take up his mantle. We can’t all be as talented, but if perhaps one of us is, than the act of writing about film will continue to be worthwhile.
A man goes to a movie, we are all better off that, for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert was that man.