“I love you, Roger Ebert.”
That’s all I could write in the seconds immediately following a tweet announcing his death posted by the Chicago Sun Times, where Ebert had served as chief film critic for 46 years. As much as any film-maker, Ebert the viewer, critic, and writer was the face of movie adoration throughout my entire life, accompanied for a good chunk of that time by his At the Movies co-host, Gene Siskel, who passed away from a brain tumor in 1999. Beside the sacrament expressed through watching the films, Ebert was the sagacious interpreter, a kind of theologian to whom I looked for direction, suggestions, arguments for or against something, and, especially towards the end of his life, wisdom. That’s Ebert’s legacy, beyond being a great critic and writer. He was also one of the great illuminating humanists of my life.
It’s not to say that I agreed with him all the time, or even slightly modeled myself as a writer and critic on him. He’ll permanently have my envy as a writer, and even if he’s utterly wrong about a film (some examples: Heaven’s Gate, Brazil, Blue Velvet, Full Metal Jacket, The Master), he assumes his position with such authority, wit, and clarity that I wished I agreed with him. It’s easy to launch into tirades of hate against the critics with whom one disagrees – look at the comments section of most Internet reviews – but with Ebert, as with the best critics (such as departed icons Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, or the wonderfully up-and-running brilliance of Glenn Kenny of MSN and somecamerunning.blogspot.com), I bow in reverential disagreement.
But more than those revered colleagues, Ebert’s legacy is tied to his familiarity, which reached beyond cinephiles to the casual filmgoer. He’s family, Uncle Roger, whose writings are as declarative as they are empathetic, as if he were listening to you at the same time he was speaking. If he was pedantic, he was the most pragmatic of pedants. Maybe syndicated television and the thumbs up/thumbs down gimmick gave him the edge to become our collectively familiar chief critic, as he found an easy entrance into the living room. It’s lovely listening to him talk about a film, and then combating with Siskel (check out the two quickly collide on Crash) – but just as invigorating to hear them in uniform jubilation (maybe GoodFellas being the best example). But there’s a reason why he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, and Ebert’s gifts as a writer are what drew me to him and made him, as I acknowledged above, so loved. In my lifetime, as I became increasingly familiar with his written collections, he evolved from the verbose fleshy uncle to the eloquent voice of reason and basic human empathy: the wise uncle, or, for all of us who write about films with obsessiveness, a patriarch, a father.
Read the full column at L'ETOILE MAGAZINE