Dammit, Roger Ebert died.
Over at the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg has an obituary/eulogy for him. As with other great eulogies I’ve read, I finish it feeling like I’ve missed out on something good by never getting to know the subject personally.
Yet, in a way I can’t help feeling like I did know Roger Ebert personally. He’s been part of my life since I was a child, when I first started watching him and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews on WTTW, our local PBS station, and I’ve been using his reviews to decide what movies to see ever since. My wife and I saw a lot of movies when we were dating and during our first decade of marriage — probably about 100 a year — and “What does Ebert say?” was almost always an important question.
Not that I agreed with him all that often. He would love movies I hated and hate movies I thought were lots of fun. The thing I noticed, however, was that regardless of how he felt about a movie, after reading his review I could usually make a pretty good guess about whether or not I would like it.
I think this is because Ebert was always honest in his reviews. His wasn’t afraid to show his biases, which meant that we could easily learn what they were and compensate for them. He was fascinated by realistic movies about addiction, for example, so I always knew to discount his reviews a bit when deciding whether to go see a movie that had addiction as a theme. And when he said the plot was confusing, that usually meant I would find it intriguing. By being himself in his writing, and being consistent about it, he conveyed a lot more information than if he had tried for some kind of journalistic neutrality.
(This is an attitude I have taken to heart. It’s something I try to do when I blog, and it’s one of the reasons I admire blogging as a journalistic form. The author’s biases are an important part of any written work, and the better we understand them, the better we understand the subject of the work.)
One of the things I found endearing about Ebert’s reviews is that he so clearly loved the movies. He always seemed genuinely happy for the filmmakers when he thought they did a great job. And even when he gave a movie a low rating, he would still spend some of his review discussing the parts of the movie that worked well. You could tell that he wanted movies to be better. Even in his infamous review of North, (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”) I got the feeling that he was not feeling snarky reviewer triumph, but rather that he was angry at having witnessed a filmmaking tragedy.
Ebert was an incredibly busy guy. In addition to writing reviews for the newspaper and talking about movies on his various television shows, he also wrote books about the movies and lectured about at the University of Chicago and hosted the Ebertfest film festival. He was also online going way, way back. Before the internet, he was on AOL, and before that, he was on Prodigy and Compuserve. He also made his reviews available on the Cinemania movie encyclopedia software for PCs and Macs.
And like every other cutting-edge media figure, Roger Ebert had a blog. I’ll close with the first and last paragraphs of his last post, put up just before he went into the hospital for the last time. They serve as his goodbye (although if you read the whole piece, you’ll see he had every intention of sticking around):
Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.
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.
Thank you, Roger, for forty-six years of terrific writing and wonderful movie reviews.