Monday, April 8, 2013

Roger Ebert: A Tribute


"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

When news broke Thursday that Roger Ebert had passed away it felt like a day we've all been dreading for some time had arrived and yet no amount of preparation could have possibly softened the blow. It's taken a while for it to sink in. Truthfully, it still hasn't and may never. It often feels strange writing about the deaths of public figures or celebrities as if we know them. Because we don't. But this time it sure feels like we did. Especially toward the end. And in all the appreciations written, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that he saved his best act for last, transcending his roots as a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and beloved TV personality to become a national treasure, as well as personal inspiration to even those who may not have followed his work. For those who did, it truly feels like a guidepost is now missing. A teacher is gone. But when I think about what Ebert meant to movie lovers like myself who grew up on his show and reviews, what jumps out first is his adaptability, as he managed to conquer the media arenas of print, television, and the internet at various points during his illustrious career. And that's just scratching the surface.

Following one-time rival, colleague, co-host, and close friend Gene Siskel's death in 1999, many in the media questioned the purpose of continuing a televised review show format. But not Ebert. He still forged ahead with At The Movies in its many incarnations, making sure the revolving door of hosts continued even through his health struggles.While no pairing could ever match the onscreen magic he shared with Gene, it's easy to believe he knew that but at the same time still recognized the greater importance of having a show on television where films could be intelligently analyzed and discussed rather than reduced to a mere sound bite. As a born newspaperman, it also would have been easy for him to reject blogging and Twitter while jumping on the bandwagon of so many blaming the internet for the supposed death of film criticism. But he knew the real deal. He knew it would mean everyone would be given an opportunity to write and have a voice and that film criticism could only grow stronger as a result. For him, "blogger" was never a dirty word. Roger Ebert's Journal, would house some of his best, most insightful writing on not only movies, but--to borrow his memoir's title-- Life Itself. More impressive still was how often he championed the work of others. For the past few years, hardly a day passed where he wasn't re-tweeting a piece he'd found, with more than a few being writers I followed and read. Nothing got by him. Besides it being the ultimate demonstration of generosity, it showed his curiosity about everything and everyone.The very real possibility existed that if you had a movie blog, or any blog for that matter, he could have easily been reading it. If that's not enough to get anyone to keep writing, I don't know what is.

Whether or not you agreed with his opinion on a movie was almost beside the point, but it sure did feel good when you did. When he liked or hated a movie you did or you noticed strengths or weaknesses he pointed out, you couldn't help but feel a little smarter. There may have been critics as skilled at scientifically dissecting a film piece by piece, but none of them could ever express it as well as Ebert, on television or on the page. What always struck me most about his print reviews were how breezy and effortlessly they read while still engaging you in them. He recreated the feeling of having a friend over for dinner to talk about the latest movie you both saw. Picking up Roger Ebert's Video Companion/Movie Yearbook every December literally became an annual ritual for me, to the point that it wouldn't feel like Christmas without it. And of course all the other books like The Great Movies, Your Movie Sucks and Questions For The Movie Answer Man. Of the lessons he imparted, two famous ones always stick out. For any aspiring movie critics he simply said to ask yourself: "Did I like the movie? Why or why not?"  It may seem simplistic yet to this day, whenever I feel blocked, asking it gets me out. Every time. His observation that it isn't "WHAT a movie's about, but HOW it's about it" flipped a switch in me that wouldn't allow me to just watch movies anymore, but actually appreciate them.

Picking a favorite Ebert review is close to impossible but I'll never forget exactly where I was and what I was doing when he and Gene reviewed a small film called Fargo on their show in early 1996, before anyone had heard of it. Seeing the two of them, who bickered famously on some of the biggest releases, so enthusiastically supporting a movie together that could have slipped through the cracks without their passionate support, was quite possibly the duo's finest moment. When they disagreed they were equally strong in different ways, but united in agreement they were unstoppable. And when they were finished I knew one thing: I had to see Fargo and share in the experience they talked about. Ebert's excitement for a new movie not only made you excited too, but often altered its fortunes. Dark City is still remembered today largely because of his support and ability to catch details so many other critics missed. His print reviews put smaller, independent films on the map while his own Ebertfest highlighting overlooked gems acknowledged that sometimes we miss greatness the first time around. It wasn't uncommon, sometimes years down the line, to read his reassessment of a film he previously bashed or graciously admit to initially missing certain details. He understood that our relationship with film, as with life, is a complicated one, constantly changing and always offering up new surprises along the way.

In his final post came the announcement that he planned to take a "Leave of Presence" because the cancer had returned, but accompanying it was the suggestion he wasn't even close to being done. He planned to scale back and review only the films he wanted to, instead shifting his focus on the continued expansion of his brand. Of course, his idea of a part-time schedule would still undoubtedly feel like a a full workload to just about anyone else. He sought help financing a new movie review show and, as difficult as it is to say, I still hope his wife Chaz moves ahead with it because what better way to honor his legacy and career than having his name again attached to a quality movie review program. It turns out his final review was of Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, which is fitting. An appropriate swan song as we'll continue to wonder with each new release what his opinion would have been or how his top ten would have looked at the end of each upcoming year. But as upsetting as all of this is, it's hard not to feel incredibly grateful for just how much he's left us. And as he neared the end, he still kept going and give us even more. The term "Leave of Presence" couldn't possibly be appropriate. As always, he knew how to find just the right words.

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