When I was a kid, my dad started collecting the annual publication, “Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook”, which worked well as a reference for movies to rent at the video store. With this book series, I started by looking up movies I loved, such as the “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “Back to the Future” films to get his take on them. He shared thoughts on what made these movies work so well, through his down-to-earth reactions to the vast complexity of any given movie, in a way that even a child could follow. I started to learn a lot about film.
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”
Those are words I’ve lived by whenever I explain movies to people. I normally resent the synopsis process when talking about a film. Roger Ebert’s famous words are simple and meaningful. Form was more sacred to Roger than the content. There are too many people who are mistaken on why they love or hate certain movies due to cheap associations they make from the movie stars who are in them to the genre it claims to be.
Film criticism is currently undervalued and Mr. Ebert held a lot of that value. There are many great critics out there still. I love the educated opinions of Nathan Rabin, Scott Tobias and Tasha Robinson at the A.V. Club. David Edelstein, Bob Mondello and Kenneth Turan write for separate publications and can be heard on NPR. There are also a lot of good critics on Aint It Cool News. My current favorites are the informed yet informal Jay and Mike of Red Letter Media. These are all people seeking out eccentrics like myself, but Ebert achieved at reaching broad audience for many years -along with his co-host Gene Siskel- on television where his perception of movies was expressed. He used this power with respect for the people who made them down to average person who paid to view them.
He wasn’t inclined to alienate his viewers and readers because he was at heart, a teacher to anyone who enjoyed movies from cheap thrills to high-art in an exploration of why we feel the way we do when we’re in the cinema -or watching something at home. I recently found an old episode online where he and Gene re-evaluated “Home Alone” weeks after giving it the old “two thumbs down” and explored reasons for its success and questioned if they may have been wrong about it.
I respected Ebert even when he hated a movie I liked, such as “The Usual Suspects.” He still managed to explain the film well enough to intrigue someone who might find it interesting. He was fair.
When I felt alone in my love for a movie and discovered that Ebert loved it too, it was always gratifying. John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days.” come to mind. Those movies failed at the box office, but Ebert stood up for them as if to plea for people to give them a chance while giving their talented directors (who would find great success later in their careers) the message, “Keep up the good work!”
On April the 4th, after months of little to no activity by the man himself on his website, it was announced that Roger Ebert had succumbed shortly after his cancer returned. He had spent the past decade battling the disease of different types. After a surgery left him without the ability to speak, he kept writing with strong ambition and managed as well as an autobiography that I read last year, allowing me to know for the first time, everything else he had to say about life that didn’t revolve around a particular movie.
Getting to know his personal life allowed me to understand a lot about the values and discipline behind his perception of film and I respected him all the more for a rich and brave life that made his opinions valuable.
I have too much to say and cannot possibly organize my thoughts about this man. There is no way that this piece can express what he meant to me and to others. The most important thing is that his legacy shouldn’t die with him. Movies are worth discussing just as much as any art form that evokes bold thoughts and feelings. I feel like we’re left with a world now where people still see movies but rarely discuss them in a productive way, and as a result, cinema’s evolution is slowing down.