On Thursday, April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert passed away at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He was 70 years old.
The Pulitzer Prize winning film critic has left behind an incredible legacy, one that many people have looked up to throughout his decades of work. I, for one, always found myself reading Ebert’s reviews daily because he was one critic that I really felt connected with the readers when criticizing movies. There was no doubt that his knowledge of film was second to none, but what made his writing so successful was how personal it was. More times than not he would explain why he loved a movie, not just why a movie was good or bad. Because after all, films are meant to evoke emotion and that’s why every person is able to love a film that we know isn’t technically great.
A recent example of this is how in 2007 he listed the Top Ten films of the year. Despite writing that No Country for Old Men was “a perfect movie,” he placed it runner-up to the film he called his “true love,” which was Juno. Ebert wasn’t afraid to admit certain things like this, but that never stopped him from expressing exactly what he felt. We would learn more and more about the man through his reviews, and even though I never interacted with him, I felt like he was my friend who simply opened me up to the world of cinema.
I didn’t watch movies seriously until my second semester of college and this also was the first year I actually followed the Academy Awards. I remember how it was 2004-2005 when Brokeback Mountain was supposed to win everything. But Ebert, one of the very few, claimed that Crash would win Best Picture. And as Jack Nicholson let out a shocked, “Whoa!” he announced that Crash did win the big award that night. Even though I understand that predicting the Oscars isn’t all that terribly difficult, I also understand predicting an upset is and I just smiled when I though of how Ebert was grinning from ear-to-ear to correctly predict Crash (arguably one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history).
In keeping with the Oscars, I remember just this past year how Ebert predicted that Argo would win Best Picture before the film was even released to the general public. After the Toronto Film Festival, he felt so confident that he blogged about how the case was closed and Argo would win. As a reminder, this was before Argo started winning all the Guild awards, before the backlash of Zero Dark Thirty, before Lincoln became the critical darling. And as everyone else watched these films fluctuate all up until February, in the end Ebert was right again. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I do remember watching more than a handful of “At the Movies” with Richard Roeper. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch Siskel & Ebert though I will be searching for those videos in the near future. But it’s true to say that Roger Ebert had a great influence in my life because of the passion he had for film. It was almost like a cinematic epiphany when I realized how movies are more than just an entertaining two hours and more than just a way to escape from your current life. Because of Ebert I enjoy following multiple layers of plot, analyzing a character’s motivation and his development, concentrating on a director’s intention and the choices he/she made to tell the story, etc. I can truthfully say that I love everything about film and a great part of that is because of Roger Ebert.
Ebert’s reviews were always like he was just talking directly to me, and that is definitely a strength in his writing. After watching Mulholland Drive, I read his review and just smiled because his prose was so spot on with how I felt. He wrote, “The way you know the movie is over is that it ends. And then you tell a friend, ‘I saw the weirdest movie last night.’ Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream.” That’s exactly what I did and just reading those words put a smile on my face. Of course I continued to torture my friends by forcing them to watch the mind-fuck that is Mulholland Drive, but it’s still one of my favorite movies ever and will remain to be. I was very glad when I learned Ebert included Mulholland Drive into his Great Movies section in November, and even more delighted when it was basically a string of questions as to what exactly goes on in the film. He admits he’s still no closer to figuring it out, but that’s what makes it a great film.
There are plenty of critics out there, but only a rare few write in an honest way that Ebert always did. While I will never achieve the accomplishments that Ebert has (not many will), I still hold dear what was so important to him and the way he conducted his writing every day. He wrote:
“Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk. I have quoted it so frequently that some readers must be weary of it, but it helps me stay grounded. It says:
‘A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.’
That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.”
If that isn’t the only way to write film criticism, then I don’t know what is. Ebert transcended film criticism and enlightened the world with his reviews. It’s sad to think how there won’t be anymore reviews written by him, but still his legacy will live on.
These were the final lines of his blog post written the day before he died, “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.”
It’s almost like he knew.