| By Father Film |
Five years has gone by since the passing of the late great Roger Ebert. And although he will never write a review again, the legacy of the man who dedicated 46 years to professionally writing about film will never go away. Just as his work allowed his voice to live on after he lost it due to jawbone cancer in 2006, so too has it allowed him to live on since his death.
Stating that Ebert is the most important film critic ever may very well be hyperbole, but I’m convinced he will always be the most important film critic to me. Many people justifiably claim that there are more remarkable analyzers of film – those who developed their field in its infancy. While I’ve read and enjoyed a multitude of them, they were writers and critics first and foremost; Roger Ebert, though, was a personality.
This may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but for those young flick fans developing a palate in film, it’s essential. It made Roger more than someone I read and turned him into someone I grew up with. And while I may have taken part internally in larger intellectual debates with other film scholars, no one else ever made me love movies in the same way.
While I respected all critics for their cerebral depth and the nuance in their art, just as I did many filmmakers, I never adored any like I did Roger Ebert. I got to read him while he was writing, and saw him develop and change, at least for the last decade or so of his career. I could contend with other film critics, but Roger Ebert was the only one I could have a conversation with.
Ebert is unique in comparison to other critics I adore in that I often completely disagreed with his opinions and, at least late in his life, I didn’t always consider him a great reviewer or someone whose examination of movies I would recommend to friends. That’s not a condemnation though, because the man was exclusive in maintaining my interest even when I thought he missed the point, and I always wanted to know what he had to say.
He wasn’t just a reviewer, he was an icon and a figure I looked up to. He was usually uproarious, but always seemed genuine, never afraid to share opinions that contradicted the majority. He was eloquent yet always maintained a casual tone. Roger Ebert, more than anything, loved cinema, and he helped a generation or two love them almost as much as he did.
Grandfatherly in his demeanor, he received his longtime job composing critiques for the Chicago Sun-times not by applying, but because his love of film permeated from his very being. As a general reporter, he was offered the job of lead film critic after the previous person left his position. He didn’t even know the job was available beforehand.
Ebert brought film to the hearts and minds of millions via his syndicated TV show At the Movies… for years, along with his co-host Gene Siskel. After Siskel died due to complications from surgery for a brain tumor in 1999, Ebert continued the show with various co-hosts, before Richard Roeper was officially selected to be his counterpart.
Eventually, Ebert left the program due to his inability to speak caused by his cancer and complications from surgery in 2006. Always gamely, he continued writing over 200 reviews a year, in fact achieving a career peak with 300+ reviews in his last year of life. He continued to make press appearances despite the physical obstacles he faced, whilst maintaining the same cheerful and personable manner throughout.
Most notable during this period was when he regained the ability to speak in his own voice, albeit through artificial means, a company was able to use the hundreds of hours of DVD commentaries he had recorded to reproduce a version of himself to speak for him when he typed into a computer. Ultimately replacing a British voice Ebert had affectionately dubbed “Lawrence.”
My memories of Ebert are indeed numerous, and I embrace them all. Experiences such as trying to go see a movie, discovering it was sold out and then walking to a nearby bookstore to read Ebert’s The Great Movies in the middle of the aisle for hours made me feel like I knew more about the man than simply his appetite in film and writing sensibilities. He, more than any other critic, managed to introduce his own articulation into a piece without sacrificing the intelligence of the work, and that above all made reading him feel like my own personal conversation with the man.
The strongest memory I have is bonding with an old friend the week of senior year finals, reading his funniest reviews. Both of us, unable to sleep, anticipating the graduation of high school that was so near, stayed up all night reading Ebert for several hours. His review of Deuce Bigelow European Gigolo in particular sticks in my mind as his finest moment.
Responding to “actor” (and I use that term loosely) Rob Schneider’s own critique of another film critic, noting that he had not won a Pulitzer Prize and thus was not qualified to criticize his film, Ebert retorted “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”
When I read Ebert’s “Extended leave of presence,” back in 2013, just days before his death, my immediate reaction was “You’ve earned all the praise in the world, Roger”. For not just all your hard work, but your devotion, your enthusiasm and love, your down-to-earth intensity and your passion. And even though five years has passed since you left us, your legacy and impact will live on forever.