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Roger Ebert: A Hero, A Teacher, An Inspiration

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Roger Ebert: A Hero, A Teacher, An Inspiration

My initial reaction to Roger Ebert’s death was a selfish one. I was on my way to a screening, and received the news via text from a friend. “I’m sorry about roger ebert,” the text said. This friend isn’t connected enough to the world of Ebert to have known about his “leave of presence” announcement two days prior, so I immediately took to Google, and saw the flood of headlines. Almost in spite of myself, I cried a bit in the street. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the film world had lost one of its finest voices, or about the hard truth that someone so integral to my whole life’s film consumption was gone. All of that is still sinking in. My first thought was, “I’ll never meet him.” I felt envy for friends of Slant and The House Next Door who’ve had the pleasure, like House founder Matt Zoller Seitz, Ali Arikan, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson, and Kenji Fujishima, and others, like Simon Abrams and Sheila O’Malley, who, in recent months especially, had earned the privilege to correspond with, and write for, the “Movie Answer Man.” I’ve only had a handful of heroes in my life. Ebert was always one of them, even when I was still a film-enamored art student who hadn’t yet shifted his focus to writing. Despite Ebert’s eventual illness, my vision of one day shaking his hand never wavered. It would happen, at some point, at some festival, once I’d built up enough success, or something like that. And then April 4 hit.

I wasn’t planning on writing up something on Ebert. So many wonderful pieces, from folks like RogerEbert.com’s own Jim Emerson, so quickly flooded the Web, and articulated so much of what made the late legend great. And as both a newsman and deft embracer of the immediacy of social media, Ebert himself might wag a finger (or flash a downward thumb) at the publication of a tribute piece five days after his death. But, for once, we entertainment writers have a topic immune to the blink-and-miss-it shelf life imposed by the 24-hour news cycle, and, more importantly, one worthy of transcending it. This isn’t the only Ebert article we’ll be publishing this week. And what’s more, no film writer needs to feel the pressure of penning the ultimate hat-tip, a pressure so many openly wrestled with as they gathered their thoughts. If you write about movies, if you watch them, if you love them, you have a link to this man, and your response to the loss of him is valid.

Roger Ebert

For me, Ebert always seemed to be there when I needed him. When I was still just reviewing films for sport, or watching them in the dark of my parents’ basement, I’d rush to Ebert’s website (or his books) to compare his thoughts to mine, and see what I could learn from his insights. In the late ’90s and through the Aughts, when my love of cinema graduated well beyond fondness for popcorn fare celebrated at shows like the MTV Movie Awards, it was Ebert who turned me on to oodles of offbeat stuff—films that remain divisive even with his ever-respected stamp of approval. Titles that come to mind include Sally Potter’s Yes, a romance with dialogue recited entirely in iambic pentameter; Rodrigo García’s Nine Lives, a collection of female-centric vignettes each shot in a single take; and Mooladé, Ousmane Sembène’s devastating account of female genital mutilation in Africa (as you can see, two of these titles were divisive indeed, skewered by our own critics). As he did for many, Ebert exposed me, in later years, to the excitement of the work of Ramin Bahrani, and he infectiously, exponentially enhanced my love for Martin Scorsese, perhaps the only man who can talk about film more passionately than Ebert could. After changing my major from graphic design to journalism and, finally, to film and media studies, I emerged with a rich, yet (what I felt to be a) somewhat incomplete education, with plenty of gaps to fill in the film canon. Along with the treasures of the Criterion Collection, Ebert’s Great Movies books became my extended film school, and I spent long nights poring over the pages, falling deeper and deeper in love with works like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Do the Right Thing, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, still three of my favorite films of all time.

As the years went on, and I began doing more and more of my own writing, I admittedly started reading fewer Ebert reviews, for reasons I can’t quite place. Maybe I wanted to diversify my influences, taking in the work of other greats like A.O. Scott, and brilliant writers I can now happily call my colleagues and friends. I’d still regularly check the site for his star ratings, needing only type “rog” in the address bar before my computer’s memory offered me “rogerebert.com.” As always, his opinion mattered. But it was around this time that I found much more enrichment in Ebert’s journal, a position I’m sure I share with countless readers. More than ever, Ebert, through his blog, revealed his great humanism and his wizardry as an essayist, assessing life with the same openness and curiosity as he did the movies. I was one of thousands, millions maybe, who marveled at the Aug. 25, 2009 entry My name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic. As someone who, in short, doesn’t drink because he shouldn’t, I was gobsmacked to learn that someone I held in the utmost esteem had yet another layer I could connect to, and such a personal one at that. Again, the revelation came at a time when I truly needed it. Again, Ebert was there for me. This past fall, a little more than four years later, I finished Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, and I’m so glad I did, when I did. The closing passages, in which Ebert offers his poetic, yet no-frills, take on life and death, reads like the work of a sage who really knows what it is to be a person. For a man of 28, somewhat struggling with the fact that the ease of youth is rapidly, unequivocally ending, it felt like essential reading.

On April 4, between that fateful text and my screening, I had about 45 minutes to kill. I stepped into a Starbucks and opened my laptop, skimming through stories and tributes and obituaries that seemed to be—or, undoubtedly, were—multiplying by the minute. I wanted to grab a stranger, maybe the barista, and ask if he’d heard the news. Would it have meant anything to him? Surely he at least knew who Ebert was. I kept quiet, finished my coffee, crossed the street, and entered the screening room. It was packed, filled with critics and journalists on their smartphones, lamenting and buzzing about the fall of an inimitable kindred spirit. It was sad, but also warm and communal. People were especially talkative, uncommonly willing to spark up a dialogue. I was pleased to see Kenji Fujishima enter shortly after me, and when he sat in front of me, I told him how I envied him for getting to meet the man. Not much more was said, and the lights went down. The movie being played? It was To the Wonder, which, of course, ultimately yielded Ebert’s last review. It was all quite perfect, I guess. I never got to meet Roger, but looking back on it, in that moment, so much of him was there, on screen and off, you might say.