Since the news broke earlier today of Roger Ebert’s passing, I’ve been reading various reminisces of people touched by his life and work in one way or another. Film critics who first encountered movies through watching his show with Gene Siskel; people who interacted with him online via his blog and twitter after cancer robbed him of his jaw and his speaking voice; and people who just crossed paths with him in the world and whose lives seemed brightened by the encounter. It seems a tall order to me to add to this, but he was one of my intellectual heroes, a champion of simple human empathy, so I am compelled to try.
While I loved movies from an early age as a child, I learned to actually engage with them through watching Ebert and his one-time rival and best friend Siskel debate them — sometimes loudly, always passionately, and often passive-aggressively — on their PBS show in the 80s. PBS was one of the default stations in my household during those formative preteen (and later teen) years, and I would watch as these two grown men would repeatedly challenge one another over whatever film they were reviewing. I was spellbound; it made for good television. Only later did I realize it was challenging me to think about the films they were debating. Neither men were comfortable with passively watching a film — they sought to engage with it, and with one another afterwards. Looking back, it remains amazing: two men on PBS were loudly debating what was art, and viewers were tuning in to watch it.
They certainly informed the ways I viewed movies, even inspiring me to write little reviews of my own. When I was writing for my junior high newspaper at the tender age of 13, Ebert in particular served as a model — a poorly followed model — for my little columns. I remember winning a city-wide journalism award that my English teacher nominated me for on the sly, for the review I wrote of Dune. I remember tearing the movie apart — most likely unjustly, for all its flaws there were worse films out there — in a tsunami of angst and teen snark which probably would carry better these days on the internet. My inspiration may have been Ebert, but my execution was certainly not. At one point I almost sent him a copy, to ask his advice, but ended up deciding not to. Now I know he likely would have replied, and kindly offered suggestions. By all accounts, it was just the sort of man he was. I wish now that I had.
I religiously watched Ebert, and then later read him, ever since. There was a joy that he brought to his reviews, a powerful love of the medium, and a willingness to not only watch every film with curious, new eyes that made his life work so compelling. He was a man who was unafraid to learn, and unafraid to admit it. And hisscathing, negative reviews were just as much a joy to read as his positive ones. He was something lacking in this age — a true wordsmith. It was a joy to read the sentences he crafted.
Now we are left with a void that was once occupied by a giant of American culture. While my parents may have introduced me to the movies, you (and your friend Gene) were the ones who made me love them, Roger, and more importantly, think about them. The world is a lesser place in your absence. As Keith Olbermann tweeted this afternoon, now “the world is a safer place for mediocrity.”