“However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for… So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Roger Ebert posted that on his blog last Tuesday night, two days before succumbing to the cancer he had battled so valiantly for so long. The occasion for this piece was an announcement that he would be taking “a leave of presence”—a classically Ebert turn-of-phrase—cutting back on his reviewing duties, but touting all sorts of grand plans for film festivals, documentary projects, television programs and digital expansions at RogerEbert.com. A savvy newspaper man to the bitter end, Ebert buried the lede in the seventh paragraph: His cancer had returned.
I’m not quite sure it’s possible to convey the massive footprint of influence Roger Ebert had upon just about everybody who does what I do for a living or anybody who loves movies in general. The outpourings of grief online last week were a remarkable testimony, but most of all quite warm, funny and human. (If you’ve got some time, search around on Twitter for #ToRogerEbert, a series of late-night toasts on Saturday night, instigated by my dear friend Matt Zoller Seitz.) Ebert’s was a life lived with class, decency and a razor-sharp wit.
Which is how I ended up sitting at my desk last Thursday crying for a man I never met. I would not be here right now were it not for him.
It was a stroke of genius pitting Ebert, the hotshot Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times critic, against his cross-town rival, law-school refugee Gene Siskel, for a half hour of contentious film discussion, first on public television and later nationally syndicated. These were not the rehearsed, mustachioed punsters you’d normally see on TV. Siskel tripped over his words, Ebert talked with his hands and a honking down-state Illinois accent. But their chemistry was electrifying.
The television show had many titles. It started out as Opening Soon at a Theater Near You and morphed around to Sneak Previews, At the Movies, eventually, I think, Siskel and Ebert At the Movies—I’m not sure; I’ve lost track of them all. We always just called it “Gene and Roger.” Terrible idea for a TV program—two awkward, mismatched, un-telegenic ink-stained wretches argue about movies for half an hour. And yet, every week, it felt like a cultural event.
More importantly, Siskel and Ebert taught us at a very young age that films weren’t mere diversions, but crafted objects worthy of adult consideration. The old guard considered the show tasteless, dumbing-down criticism to a “thumbs up-thumbs down” paradigm that you’ll still find today on Rotten Tomatoes. But Siskel (who died in 1999) and Ebert were relentlessly passionate and used their bully pulpit to stump for under-promoted, groundbreaking movies. How else would a bored teenager living in a suburban wasteland like me ever find himself seeking out My Dinner with Andre, Swimming to Cambodia or Do the Right Thing? That program blew a door open in my mind that has never closed.
And later, good God, the writing! It soon became a tradition that every Christmas, my Auntie Chris and Uncle Terry gave me the new edition of Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, because in those pre-Internet days, Ebert’s reviews were not so easily accessible. (I recall once being so engrossed in the latest copy and stories about this strange movie called Blue Velvet that I ignored my family’s tree-decorating. Sorry, Mom.)
Ebert wrote with an everyman’s plainspoken enjoyment, but he saw no difference between so-called high and low culture. The latest Ingmar Bergman movie deserved his four stars just as much as Lethal Weapon. The greatest critical axiom ever coined comes from Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.” He could make the most obscure art films sound like an enormous amount of fun, and then turn around and devote an entire paragraph to a heartfelt appreciation of an actress’ oversized breasts.
I can do no justice to the third act of Ebert’s life, when he was so debilitated by so many illnesses and injuries, a lesser man would have thrown in the towel. He didn’t just soldier on. Cruelly robbed of his voice, he found an even stronger one online, meditating on the past, current events, scientific discoveries and always the movies. At the same time, Ebert was still using his celebrity status to promote new talent, inciting new projects, always moving forward.
“The balcony is closed,” he and Gene used to say at the end of every episode. But it isn’t. Roger Ebert made sure it’s open to all of us.