I curse that this is up later than intended because Roger Ebert never would have missed a deadline. Ebert, who died five days ago at the age of 70, was, to myself and scores of people, not just a film critic, but the critic. He was the one whose opinion was consulted for any film, anytime–even if you disagreed with him, as my own father did with The Hunger Games, you still sought his words out. This past decade, it came to be understood by many through his brilliant website, rogerebert.com, that he was not just a great critic but a great writer.
Indeed, in many of the professional pieces I’ve read eulogizing Ebert since his passing, that thread of him being a great writer is woven throughout, with many dropping mention of his critically acclaimed memoir Life Itself, which regretfully, I haven’t read yet. Many noted, even before his death, the remarkable fact that, even though he could have justifiably retired after struggling with painful and horrible thyroid cancer that ultimately resulted in the loss of his jaw leaving him unable to eat, drink or speak, he didn’t.
Instead, he strove on, writing on his blog, his regular reviews, becoming a star on Twitter and writing a book about a rice cooker, of all things. Not many writers remain writing right up until the end, but he did. And that’s amazing. Simply amazing.
I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, so while I’m not as far removed as the town of Urbana, Illinois, where Ebert was from, I’m a good distance away. In that respect, I feel we had some commonality. That may be presumptuous, but it is what I feel. One of the main origins of this blog, I suppose (aside from the fact that it keeps me from ranting too much to my friends), is that I grew up reading Ebert’s reviews; whenever he reviewed a movie that my dad thought he might be interested in, he would print it out and bring it home for me. It was through reading his reviews that I learned to appreciate things like the works of Hayao Miyazaki or The Godfather.
By the time I came of age to be aware of it, Ebert’s legendary show At the Movies had been moved to late Saturday nights, right after the news, on our local ABC affiliate. I rarely watched it before Ebert left due to his health, so to me, I knew Ebert through his writing. And I’m OK with that, because if it wasn’t for that, I never would have learned how to review in the first place.
This past fall, I came across an old collection of Ebert’s interviews, A Kiss Is Still A Kiss, which collects articles discussing his meeting with stars as diverse as an elderly Groucho Marx or a pensive Jack Lemmon. I still haven’t finished it, but it was my sincere hope when I did to someday find out if Ebert was making a public appearance, go to it, have him sign it, and tell him just how much his writing has meant to this one nerdy kid from Lansing, Illinois. I wanted to tell him how eye-opening he was and how he proved that it’s OK to be passionate about art, whether you’re watching it or creating it. He showed me that that’s wonderful, noble and even necessary.
And now I never will.
I haven’t brought myself to read it yet, but in his final blog post announcing his absence to focus on his health, two days before his death, the same day as his 46th anniversary as a film critic, he ended with “I’ll see you at the movies.”
I’ll see you there, Roger. Forever and ever.