Postulating & Pontificating: On A Film Institution…

roger ebert

A man who inspired many, and no matter what left a lasting imprint on the world of film!

I haven’t had the chance to read any articles about the passing of Roger Ebert. I have no doubt that I will enjoy the testimonies to his greatness as a film critic, his influence on film criticism, his skills as a writer, and so forth and so on. I was working a twenty four hour shift on the ambulance when I heard of Mr. Ebert’s death. In a way I am happy that I haven’t yet been able to soak in the reaction to his death because it allows me to come at my feelings on this matter from a completely fresh perspective. In all honesty I know that my thoughts will not be the best written, or grab the most attention, or even do the man the most justice. I can’t claim to have known Mr. Ebert or to have had any sort of personal connection to him. However, I can claim to be a fan of his work and to have found inspiration in his career. What follows isn’t really a testimony to said career, but rather a very subjective look at what Mr. Ebert meant to me and my journey through the world of film for all these years.

I was always into the movies. For as long as I can remember I was someone who looked forward to watching movies and being engaged by the magic of film. I was never sure what I could do within the world of film. I wasn’t charismatic, or anywhere near a decent enough presence, to be an actor. I didn’t have either the drive or the technical wherewithal to think about directing, sound work, cinematography or anything of the sort. From a very young age, about ten or so, I had pegged my future in film as being nothing more than a fan of the art form. That all changed one day when I turned on the television and watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert supplying critical opinions/analysis to films. Here were a couple of guys on television doing nothing more than offering up their personal takes on films that they had watched. I was very young and didn’t know much, but the moment I finished watching my first episode of At The Movies I knew that I wanted to be someone who engaged in discussions on all that the world of film had to offer.

Fast forward to when I’m in my late teens and writing sports reports for my high school newspaper. I wasn’t particularly enjoying what I was writing, but I was writing and that was all that mattered to me. It was around this time that the internet made a huge surge in popularity. One of the first things I did with the newfangled internet was to use it to search for any information I could on movies. I discovered various groups in chat rooms and very early versions of message boards where people wanted to discuss movies. That was crazy to me, because for the first time I felt like I had truly found an outlet for my love of film. On one such group I discovered a plethora of stored, probably illegally, reviews from a number of critics. I was exposed to the likes of Pauline Kael, Bosley Crowther, and Roger Ebert, to name but a few. I began to see that written film criticism was more than just a passing fancy, it was an art form all unto itself. And for me the King of that art form was none other than Roger Ebert.

I pored over every review of his I could find, while at the same time smacking myself for not realizing that I could have been reading Mr. Ebert’s weekly film reviews in my local Chicago Sun-Times. That disappointing revelation aside, I realized through Mr. Ebert, and some other critics, that I want to practice the art form of writing about movies. I’m not going to lie, before I developed my own style of writing I cribbed heavily from Mr. Ebert. If any of my early reviews for my high school newspaper were still around I’d be able to procure examples of reviews where I was trying desperately to copy Mr. Ebert in every way possible. As my high school career came to a close I took a brief break from movies, and from Mr. Ebert. I had bigger fish to fry than the movies, and thus I didn’t have time for reading film criticism, or so I thought.

A few years later I started getting back into film and I noticed that Roger Ebert was now a major presence on the internet. His work was now being published online by the man himself. This changed my world and convinced me that if I applied myself I would be able to publish my own reviews online. I haven’t done the research so I’m not sure of how much credit to give Mr. Ebert, but my gut tells me that he’s due all the credit in the world for ushering in the age of online film criticism. His work online was the same as his work for the newspaper, but it was easier to find and more readily available. I knew that I again wanted to follow in Mr. Ebert’s footsteps and somehow get in on the online film criticism phenomenon.

I was late to the boat as far as publishing my work online went. I didn’t get around to creating this blog and actually making an effort to get my work online until late 2008. What can I say, unlike a Roger Ebert I’m slow to the draw and lack the intuition to get in on something when the going is hot. My writing had evolved, although Mr. Ebert was still the main inspiration for my writing. I took my ratings system from Mr. Ebert, and I adopted the conversational essay style that Mr. Ebert so brilliantly used for all of his career. I still wanted to be Roger Ebert, but I noticed that my writing began to take on its own unique flavor and style. I’m not silly enough to think that I have ever come close to approaching the brilliance of Mr. Ebert’s writing. But, he was my inspiration, and if not for Mr. Ebert I wouldn’t be writing about anything related to movies.

Sometime in the last couple of years I began to notice a rather large gap in my tastes and the tastes of Mr. Ebert. There had always been a divide in our opinions on horror and genre cinema. But now the gap was widening and most of the time when I spoke of Mr. Ebert I would say, “He’s easily my favorite critic, but I disagree with him way more than I agree.” Something that speaks to the strength of Mr. Ebert as a critic is that no matter the size of the divide in opinion I never stopped reading his work and absorbing his thoughts on the world of film. I cringed when I read what he had to say about Kick-Ass or Serbuan Maut, but even in those cases I was willing to hear what he had to say. No matter what I valued Mr. Ebert’s opinion and I always turned to his thoughts as a sort of landmark for my own thoughts.

Politics and the world at large were what Mr. Ebert became more well known for in his final years. I’m not a political person, so I was never as invested in his non-film related material. Funnily enough I agreed with most of what Mr. Ebert had to say about politics (being pro universal health care and same-sex marriage for instance) and about the world at large (calling Ryan Dunn out for driving drunk and killing people). However, I was always at a distance from Mr. Ebert’s non-film opinions simply because I have found that online discussions of politics, religion, etc. are extremely distasteful and not worth engaging in.

I even got to interact with Mr. Ebert in the last couple of years. It was a small moment, but I was like a kid in the candy store when he replied directly to a comment I left on his review of Undefeated. The fact that Mr. Ebert even took the time to respond to my comment meant the world to me and I got the sense that Mr. Ebert took great joy in interacting with his many fans.

At the same time I think it’s important to note that Roger Ebert was not an infallible person. His stance that video games aren’t art perplexed me to no end. If there was ever a time when Mr. Ebert was swimming against the currents of time as opposed to swimming with them it was when he would offer his thoughts on video games. I was also left quite perplexed when Mr. Ebert came out against fellow critic Armond White and declared him nothing more than a troll based solely on him disliking some films that most people loved. I’m not bringing these issues up to discredit or knock Mr. Ebert. Rather, they help to show how human he was and that he was a man who had his opinions, regardless of what others thought. Even when I was vehemently disagreeing with what Mr. Ebert had to say I still found myself admiring his tenacity to present a personal opinion and not back down from said opinion.

Lastly, I think it’s fitting that I chose the picture I did as the lead-in for this article. Mr. Ebert had a rough final stretch of his life, in terms of his illness and complications from said illness. But, when I look at that picture I don’t see a man defeated by the problems in his life. I see a man who rolled with the punches and continued to inspire film lovers the world over right until his final moments. There wasn’t a defeatist bone in Mr. Ebert’s body, and more than any of his contributions to film combined I admired that the most about the life he led. His work was great, and it greatly inspired me and many other wannabe-critics. But, in his final years on this planet Mr. Ebert showed an inner strength that allowed for his love of film and humanity to shine through more than ever.

There’s no proper way for me to end this subjective take on the way that Roger Ebert impacted my life. All I can say is that Mr. Ebert will be missed, not just as a film critic, but as a decent human being. I know that I’ll miss seeking out new reviews from him on a weekly basis. I’ll also miss his enthusiasm for the world of film and life in general. Most of all I’ll miss the man that inspired me in so many ways, because there’s no way that anyone in the film community will ever impact me in the same way that Mr. Ebert did.

Cheers,
Bill

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