R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Just two days after announcing to the world he would be taking “a leave of presence” from his job at the Chicago Sun-Times, and “reviewing only the movies I want to review,” Roger Ebert passed away.

Roger Ebert

Ebert, 70, began writing for the Sun-Times in 1967. Several decades later, he pioneered a new kind of broadcast criticism with his show At the Movies, popularising the ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ designation with his partner Gene Siskel.

He had been battling cancer for much of the past decade.

In his final blog post, Ebert revealed that the cancer had returned, though still he looked toward the future by announcing a new site for his work, Ebert Digital, which would also showcase younger writers.

His annual festival, Ebertfest, will celebrate its fifteenth iteration later this month. He planned to Kickstart a new version of At the Movies in the coming weeks. A video game/mobile app was also on the cards.

Much will be said about Roger Ebert over the coming days and weeks and months; likely by those who worked with him to some degree or another, and by his devoted wife Chaz. I fall into the category of those who merely idolised him from afar; even more writings will appear from this group.

As a teenager, his musings on movies were the only ones I gave credence to. It could be argued that this was just because he was the most “famous” critic, but his articulate reviews ultimately made him a professional inspiration. Our tastes differed more and more as I grew older. However, I found I still returned to him for further – and sometimes, the final – analysis of something I had just seen.

I was hired as a critic for Quickflix at the age of 19. I turned again to him for help. That very year, he handily published two pieces that I printed out and kept as my bible: Roger’s little rule book, and Death to film critics! Hail to the Celebcult!

Though I didn’t always agree with his opinion on certain features, it was uncanny how easily he seemed to be able to express a film’s essence in just one sentence.

I’ll never forget the last paragraph of his take on The Refuge (a picture I had personally wrestled with): “For a time in her life, a woman’s pregnancy is the most important thing about her.” The entire movie, in 16 words; what Francois Ozon had only just been able to convey visually in the flick itself.

His writing reminds us why exactly there is this thing called criticism.

Of Johhny Depp’s turn in Public Enemies, he said, “for once an actor playing a gangster does not seem to base his performance on movies he has seen.” Of all the theatrical crafts, acting is often the most difficult to discuss. Yet, here, he cuts to the core of why Depp was any good, succinctly and understandably. Can I dislike Public Enemies and still agree wholeheartedly with Ebert’s sentiment?

Ebert used to frequently say of bad films, “[They] know the words but not the music.” This remains my favourite way of describing them too.

Over the past five years, I visited his site less frequently. Not because I’d found his pieces any less interesting (2012 was actually his most prolific year). Rather, there was often a threat that I would unknowingly steal one of his brilliant observations, or, worse, be crushed by the ineptitude of my own piece by comparison.

I instead indulged in his compendiums Awake in the Dark and Your Movie Sucks. His memoir, Life Itself, was a recent Christmas present. It’s been sitting on my shelf since. Though his death still comes as a surprise, we all knew his declining health would eventually take the man from us. Perhaps that’s why I’ve waited so long to read it. These would be among his final words.

His true final words, at least as published in his “Leave of presence” piece, remind us why and how, even without the use of his voice, he became a hero of the Internet age.

“Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” Concise. Affecting. Wonderful. The pleasure was ours.

2 Responses to “R.I.P. Roger Ebert”

  1. Simon, I always enjoy your writing, but this is a really beautiful tribute. You have done well and, I’m sure, inspired us to go out and by at least one of his books. Thank you, Bev.

  2. Roger will live on for as long as we talk about movies.

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