I learned last week’s sad news late on a particularly busy work day, as I was scrambling to gather my thoughts for an important meeting. First came a pop-up message from a fellow cinephile simply asking, in light jest, if I was okay. Seconds later came a Facebook notice from an old friend of mine, with whom I have come to bond over great films and great film writing. The words he posted on my timeline were simple: “Roger Ebert,” punctuated with a sad-faced emoticon. Swept up by a sudden rush of urgency, I dropped what I was doing to clack in the URL for the first news site I could think of. When the page did not load immediately, I promptly opened a new browser window for another site, desperate for legitimate confirmation. And there it was: the breaking news that Roger Ebert had finally succumbed to his decade-long struggle with cancer. I was struck initially with mild shock; of course, he had been quite ill, but given his announcement only days prior that he would be taking on a significantly reduced workload, which he called a “Leave of Presence,” I was certain I had some time left with him.
When I shared the news with my fiancé Kevin, he told me he was “so sorry.” I laughed off the seriousness of his condolences at first, reassuring him I would be just fine. I never met the man, after all. “Oh, I know that,” Kevin told me, “but it’s not every day that a hero of yours dies.”
“A hero of mine,” I repeated to myself. It was odd to think of anybody like that, even though I had been ravenously absorbing Mr. Ebert’s criticism – as well as his other writing – since I was a teenager. I am not exactly in the business of canonizing even the most important people in my life, let alone the celebrities I never met. But then the loving obituaries gushed onto the internet mere hours after his death. Critics and movie fans alike shared their experiences reading Roger Ebert, relishing his inimitable verbal chemistry with the late Gene Siskel and lauding his generosity as the craft of film criticism made its turbulent shift from the Arts section of the newspaper to the unwieldy democracy of Internet journalism and blogging. What’s more, they commended his uncommon openness as he chronicled his waning health.
Reading all these weepy tributes, finding a little bit of myself in each one, it only now seems apparent that the accomplishments of Roger Ebert’s life inspired not simply with respect to his chosen vocation. Like countless other aspiring film critics, he became my formative voice both as a writer and as a consumer of art. Why shouldn’t I call him a hero of mine?
When I call Roger Ebert my “formative voice,” I don’t mean that I willfully emulate his writing style, which I would characterize as an elegantly straightforward in its prose, yet flawlessly attuned to his intellectual and emotional experiences with a particular work. His wordsmithery is often blatantly utilitarian, less keen to filter his arguments through intricate composition of prose than through the beauty he finds in the art and the entertainment he was paid to regard. That is a great style of writing. I envy that writing style. Yet I know it is not my style of writing, and I imagine those generous enough to read me would agree.
What Roger Ebert shaped within me, both as a critic and as a man, was a sense of temperament, and the importance of realizing that each observance I make, whether the page accepts it or not, warrants thoughtfulness and perspective. He knew that in criticism, there is little success (and little value) in removing yourself from the discussion of a particular work, and that thoughtful criticism is only as good as the writer’s honest interaction with the work being discussed. He was also quite fond of saying that “what matters to a movie is not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” That deceptively simple interrogative – “how” – has since become the most important word in my adult life. Thanks to Mr. Ebert, I no longer love a movie, nor do I hate it; I consider how I love it, or how I hate it. I consider how it means something to me, or how it fails to engage my experiences.
That sentiment of his resonates, for me, well beyond the discussion of cinema. When I express my political beliefs, I try my best to consider not that I have personal convictions, but how I arrived at such convictions. When I sit down for dinner, I consider how a dish is delicious, or how it fails to satisfy. When I get married next year, and when I struggle to write my vows, I shall consider not that I love my fiancé, but how I love him. The three letters forming that word will never escape me.
Of course, I would be remiss not to acknowledge how the actual work of Roger Ebert gave me joy and intellectual sustenance as a young reader. That joy will forever be remembered in fragments and anecdotes. I remember how he argued in his review for Schindler’s List that what makes the movie so moving is not its subject matter, but “how completely [director Steven] Spielberg serves the story…brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen.” This argument taught me it was okay to fall in love a work, despite its grim and difficult content. I remember how Ebert helped me write my senior project for high school, a research paper arguing for the influence of Citizen Kane. I remember hanging on to every word of his audio commentary on the film’s DVD, jotting notes on his astute breakdown of Gregg Toland’s deep-focus shots. I remember reading his review of Kane, likening “Rosebud” to another aspirational symbol within a seminal piece of Americana, that green light at the end of the pier in The Great Gatsby. I remember how that connection deepened my understanding and affection for both works. I remember reading his thorough (and hilarious) evisceration of Bob Stein’s risible anti-evolution documentary Expelled, and realizing how well it doubles as a plea for rational thought and intellectual honesty.
I remember, generous as the man was, how adeptly he delighted in his celebrity, unafraid to be proud and egotistical yet never losing his sense of humility. I remember when Rob Schneider condemned another critic for panning his movie Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo with the rebuttal “Maybe you didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven’t invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who’s Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers.” I remember Ebert intervening in defense of his fellow critic, saying “Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.” How many other famous writers, I ask, would so use their pedigree and hubris for the power of good?
To say I could cull countless other memories from Ebert’s decades-long career of newspaper criticism, TV punditry and prolific blogging would be an indisputable truth. His was an existence well-lived, one well-documented and well-admired. The beltway obituaries are remembering him, quite vulgarly, as “the most famous thumbs in the world.” Perhaps that is true; his trademark (and trademarked) gesture is certainly his most recognized contribution to film as a conversation. But “thumbs” was among the last words that leaped into my thoughts when accounting the contributions of his that meant something to me. Roger Ebert was, and remains, an essential curator of cultural discourse, a tradition I value as profoundly as the love of family, the idle time spent with friends and the visceral power of art itself. If I can even come close to informing my writing and my life with the enthusiasm he commanded, I know I will have honored a legacy he has left me. And left us.
I guess that’s how Roger Ebert inspires me, and how he shall forthwith remain “my hero.”