Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert

He was the first film critic on the Hollywood walk of fame.
Roger Ebert, who is one of my heroes, passed away today. He was probably America's most important film critic and a force of nature on Twitter and the blogosphere. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, and he's the "Ebert" in "Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up."

It's odd to think of how much influence this film critic has had on me. There are some obvious ways; for the past two years I've worked as a music critic, and I used his criticism as a model for my own work. I've written previously about four qualities of his that I admire and emulate: his generosity, his personableness, his enthusiasm, and his prose.

But there are more subtle ways his work has impacted me. Probably the best piece I did in my stint as a radio producer was an examination of his claim that "video games can never be art." I wound up disagreeing with him on the issue, but exploring his arguments led me to a much richer understanding of video games and art than I would have come to otherwise. All the Ebert fans I've talked to since his passing have mentioned that they always valued what he had to say, even if they disagreed with him. That has absolutely been my experience time and time again.

And I feel like I need to reiterate that Ebert's writing was just so darn good. He had great insights and great skill, but he was also highly accessible. Several times when I was teaching ESL or literacy classes, I used his reviews with students to teach them about reading for tone.

I was chatting with my brother about Ebert today, and he had this to offer:
"He helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with wanting to go to the movies every damn day of my life.

"Because there's MORE there for me than 90 minutes of good times. There's whole lifetimes of thought, lessons to be learned and actions to be taken. If it's worth seeing, it's worth thinking about.

"And it's worth seeing."

I think there's an idea of critics as deeply unhappy people who derive their only joy from tearing down the work of others. There are jerks in every field, but if that's your modus operandi, you'll never be a good critic. Ebert was great because he loved movies and saw in them more than the rest of us. It was a rare gift of having a childlike adoration for the form and a keen insight into the technical and theoretical aspects of the craft.

I could ramble on and on about the things he's introduced me to via his Twitter feed, which sounds ridiculous. But through that feed I was introduced to the Italian composer Giovanni Dettori, with whom I had a rewarding professional correspondance.

Two days before he passed, Ebert announced that the would be taking "a leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times due to increased medical issues. But he outlined what he still wanted to accomplish on the Web and as a writer. I was really touched by two things he said.

First: "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."

Once again, this is a man who may be remembered for spectacular burns, but deep down, his occupation was a labor of love.

And second: "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

I never had any communication with Roger Ebert, but it did feel very much like I went with him to the movies. And not only did his writing inform my own viewing experience, but it influenced the world. He has written about virtually every film of even slight importance from the beginning of cinema up until his death. His canon is a national treasure. And so I was struck by his continued optimism and hope to "see you at the movies."

I'll always see him at the movies.

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