By now you have no doubt heard about the death of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. After a long, valiant battle with cancer, Ebert finally succumbed to his illness (somewhat abruptly) at the age of 70. There are many better, more eloquent farewells making the rounds on the Internet and I will link to some that have caught my attention at the end of this post. But I would be embarrassingly remiss if I didn’t add a small, insignificant entry into the outpouring of reflection that has broken out over the last 24 hours. So let me start off by saying that, for me, Roger Ebert WAS film criticism and if it wasn’t for him, The Soap Box Office would not exist.
There is a moment in the life of every film critic, whether professional or horrifically amateur, in which he or she suddenly understands that movies can be more than just simple entertainment. For me that moment came during my first viewing of The Shawshank Redemption. I was probably 13 years old and it was the first film that I understood to be truly significant. That is a story for another day but I bring it up now because it was also the moment when Roger Ebert came into my life. Before that revelation, I went to see the movies my parents allowed me to see and I didn’t spend much, if any time, considering the merits of films that weren’t the kid-to-pre-teen-oriented blockbusters that rolled through every couple of weeks. Shawshank changed all that as it opened me up to a world I hadn’t been aware of before, a world where somewhere between three and seven new films came to theaters every week and while some of them were the big movies I was used to seeing previews for, some were completely unknown to anyone within my general sphere of influence. With the Internet still in its infancy, however, (and I’m not sure if we even had dial up at that point), there weren’t a whole lot of outlets for film discovery. But there was At the Movies.
Shortly after my Shawshank epiphany, I became aware of a late-night program that focused entirely on two men debated, talked about, and even fought over movies of all shapes and sizes. It was a little slice of heaven that became must-see TV for me at a time when I hardly watched any TV that wasn’t Boy Meets World or sports-related. I didn’t get to watch it every week (and for the life of me I can’t remember if it was broadcast on Saturday nights or Sunday nights) but any chance I got I soaked up the immense power of At the Movies. The chemistry that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had was the sort of thing that even the best romantic comedies can only dream of creating. They respected each other but at times you weren’t sure that they actually liked each other. It was a complicated relationship that at times got personal but never lost sight of the thing they both loved so deeply: the cinema. Both Ebert and Siskel were unequivocally passionate about film and would hold to their varied opinions about a given film to the very end. There have been a thousand talking heads/debate shows to come down the chute in recent years, particularly in the sports world, but none have been nearly as natural as At the Movies was because none of them displayed genuine passion the way that show did.
The impact of this was tremendous for me and about a billion other movie fans because that passion rubbed off on us in a manner similar to a wildfire. Ebert (Siskel, too, but since I always leaned toward Ebert’s side of things, his influence was greater) taught me that it was not only acceptable to think critically when it came to pop culture entries but that it was important to do so. That’s not something that I’d ever been exposed to. I was taught to think critically about the important things in life (school, faith, etc.) but to apply that mentality to movies, sports, music, etc. was a new concept to me (or at least I was only then able to grasp it). I watched At the Movies and was vindicated in my child-like understanding of that Shawshank was good and Anaconda was bad, while simultaneously exposing myself to a wide world of new films that never would have piqued my interest previously. I suddenly and desperately needed to see White Squall for some reason and there were plenty of other movies that came along in the coming years that fit the same bill: they weren’t the sort of blockbusters I had drooled over before and they weren’t the movies my friends wanted to see but I had a great desire to digest as many films as I possibly could.
Soon thereafter I started doing everything I could to get my hands on Ebert’s written work. I found one of his collections of reviews in the library and read them all, the Internet evolved and some of his work could be found online, etc. and through his writing, Ebert became even more appealing to me. In the infancy of my new fascination, I sought out the reviews written by local critics in our newspapers and immediately soured on the idea because they never liked ANY of the movies that I liked. At 14 or 15 years old, my movie taste may not have been as developed as it is now but I could still tell that these critics were not interested in granting the possibility that a big budget film could be just as good as a tiny indie film if they were both crafted correctly. Ebert never shied away from major films and his reviews often coincided with my own opinions. And on the occasion that we disagreed, Ebert’s reasoning was laid out in such a knowledgeable yet unpretentious way that I could accept his ruling even if I couldn’t come around to his side of the argument.
That is, of course, one of the major reasons people like myself flocked to Ebert over the hoard of voices that clogged the criticism game even before the advent of blogs and digital news outlets. If you go back and read an Ebert review from 1975, a review from 1998, and a review from 2010, you’ll hear virtually the same voice presented in the same manner: always intelligent but never condescending, derivative, or pretentious and moreover, everything Ebert ever wrote was deeply personal. He contended that criticism at its very core was personal and subjective and to pretend otherwise was foolish. Ebert’s reviews were his views and as such his own life got mixed into the batter. And above all else, he loved film. A fellow blogger noted on Twitter that while many critics require a film to earn a good rating, Ebert always seemed to start with a five star review and go from there. That’s where the aforementioned passion comes into play and that’s a big part of what I, and many like me, have tried to do with our own “careers.”
Since the beginning of my film criticism career (I have dabbled in the medium for a decade now to varying degrees of non-success), these were the principals I have lived by:
1.) Express my own love for film (whether the film I’m currently reviewing or the medium in general) and try to spread that affinity on to others; 2.) Write from a personal perspective; 3.) Present everything in the most straight-forward, honest manner possible without venturing into the Land of Pretension or pseudo-intellectualism.
That’s it, really. Love or hate my views on a film, any film, I hope my appreciation for cinema comes across in a personal, “regular guy” way and that the door is left open for conversation. That’s what I strive for, anyway, and I learned all of that from Roger Ebert.
I never had the occasion to meet Ebert personally or to interact with him online as many of my writing and blogging colleagues have. (By literally all accounts he was one of the most genuinely kind people the world has ever had to offer and he went out of his way on tens of thousands of occasions to lend a helping hand or encouraging word to fans, critics, and aspiring writers the world wide.) Nevertheless, the impact he had on my life is no less profound and in a strange way he is a not-so-insignificant part of what made me the person I am today and he certainly is the reason I have devoted so much time to the hobby of film criticism. He was a pioneer, a legend, and a true believer in his craft and for that influence on my life, I will be forever grateful.
Thank you, Roger. You will be greatly and heartbreakingly missed. The balcony is now closed.
Paste Magazine collected a number of responses from celebrities to the news of Ebert's death.
Will Leitch of Deadspin talks about his long history with Ebert.
Richard Roeper, who replaced Gene Siskel on At the Movies, wrote about Ebert's place on the Mount Rushmore of movie critics.
Dana Stevens of Slate shows us the letter Ebert wrote her when she was a child. This is one of the more touching tributes I have seen yet.
And if you've never read the Esquire piece written about Ebert back in 2010, it's worth your time as well.