Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

A few minutes ago, I read that Roger Ebert died and I can't help but feel like I've lost a good friend. I never met Ebert, but he's been richly engrained in my life for the last eighteen years, just as he has with many other film lovers for much longer than that. I was eighteen years old in the summer of 1996, having just graduated high school, when my family first got the Internet in our house. It was dial-up, of course, which, by today's standards, is painstakingly slow, but in 1996 it was the most amazing technological innovation we'd ever had the pleasure of hosting.

It was on the Internet where I first met Roger Ebert. I'd always known the name Roger Ebert, but I didn't know much about him beyond being the chubby counterpart to Gene Siskel on the widely syndicated film-criticism program Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. With the addition of the Internet to our household, I soon discovered his prolific genius.

I've grown up my whole life with the movies and can't remember a time when I didn't absolutely love them. With the Internet I discovered that I could read all about the movies, learning the sort of intimate and little known details that were never written on the back covers of my VHS tapes. Somewhere along the way, I came across a Roger Ebert movie review. I can't remember what the movie was, but I do remember being spellbound by his insight, his wit, and his elegant prose.  The website I'd discovered contained many of Ebert's film reviews for the Chicago Sun Times, which he'd been writing since April 3, 1967.

"[Marlon] Brando's performance is a skillful throwaway, even though it earned him an Academy Award for best actor. His voice is wheezy and whispery, and his physical movements deliberately lack precision; the effect is of a man so accustomed to power that he no longer needs to remind others."

-Roger Ebert, review of The Godfather

Discovering Ebert on the Internet was like discovering a new best friend, one who loved movies even more than I did and knew how to talk about them in a way that I'd never even considered. Ebert could break a movie down to it's essential elements, from story and character to set design and cinematography, doing it in a language that was both technical and accessible.

Even when he hated a movie, he made you understand why. And when he loved a movie, his reviews bordered on poetry. I went through countless ink cartridges and sheets of paper printing out my favorite Ebert reviews, as I was absolutely certain that somebody somewhere would soon figure out the value of this treasure and it would all be taken away.

I spent hours and hours reading Ebert's reviews for movies I'd seen and movies I hadn't seen, movies I loved and movies I hated.  When Ebert loved a movie I loved, I felt validated. When Ebert hated a movie I hated, I felt vindicated.  And when we disagreed, I learned to appreciate his point of view, while still maintaining my own (this, however, took several years for me to get the hang of, such was my reverence for him).

Ebert posted reviews every Friday, like clockwork, talking about all the latest films.  I soon began measuring my calendar by the days leading up to Ebert's latest batch of Friday reviews. Thanks to Ebert, I avoided films that I might otherwise have toiled through and, better yet, I fell in love with films that I might otherwise have missed altogether.

Because the reviews on his website only went back to 1980, I was, for a time, denied the opportunity of reading Ebert's thoughts on some of my very favorite movies, such as The Godfather (1972) or Jaws (1975). And then I discovered Roger Ebert's Video Companion 1996 Edition, which has most every review I'd printed from my computer, plus hundreds more, including films that were made pre-1980.  It quickly became one the more cherished treasures on my bookshelf.

"There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meaning in such an archetypal story, but [Stephen] Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all."

-Roger Ebert, review of Jaws

While Ebert could talk expertly and with a vastness of knowledge about all things film, his reviews always made me feel like we were having a pleasant and informal conversation and this, for me, was his greatest ability.

And so today I feel great sadness, because I will no longer be able to enjoy my Friday conversations with Ebert, leaving me to wonder what he might've thought of all of the wonderful movies that are yet to be made.  Of course, there are still hundreds of conversations he and I will still be able to have, on account of all the movies I haven't yet watched and all of the books he's published reviewing them.

Earlier this year, I watched a difficult movie called Amour by Michael Haneke. It is the story of an elderly couple in their eighties; the wife has a debilitating stroke and the husband tries admirably to care for her.  The movie is sad and true and, at times, difficult to watch. When it was over, I couldn't decide how I felt about the experience, so, as always, I turned to Ebert to help me make sense  of it.

"This is now. We are filled with optimism and expectation. Why would we want to see such a film, however brilliantly it has been made? I think it's because a film like 'Amour' has a lesson for us that only the cinema can teach: the cinema, with its heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience."

-Roger Ebert, review of Amour

While I never met Roger Ebert, I'll miss him terribly (even as I type these words, I can feel the tears welling up behind my eyes). At his best, he was ever able to fill me with optimism and expectation, helping me understand the lessons that only the cinema can teach, leaping across time and the Internet, showing by his exquisite example what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience.