Apr 5, 2013

Cinematters: Roger Ebert: 1942 - 2013

I never met or knew Roger Ebert, and despite his curiosity about other writers, I doubt he ever read any of my work, but, just as is the case for many other film critics, he was a huge part of why I do what I do. I can’t possibly do the man justice, but here are some thoughts, some personal reflections, prompted by his passing yesterday.

When I was about 12 my family got a new computer, it was the early 90′s, and it had one of those new fangled CD ROM drives. With it my parents got me a program called Cinemania; a sort of illustrated movie guide with thousands of review on it, to serve my growing obsession with movies. There were three critics whose reviews were included on this programme. Every film had a review by Leonard Maltin, but over and over again I found myself drawn to the titles (about one in five, as I recall) that had reviews by Roger Ebert. Maltin’s reviews were short bites of opinion, Ebert delved more, in a way that I hadn’t seen before. His writing on film wasn’t objective, wasn’t looking from a distance, it was about personal response both in terms of interpreting and qualitatively evaluating the films he saw. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that, without really understanding that I was doing so at the time, I studied those reviews as seriously as I studied any homework ever given to me. Pauline Kael (the other critic included on some of the entries in Cinemania) was perhaps a bit highbrow for my liking at the time, but Ebert was the first person who really made the idea of evaluating a film beyond the simplistic ‘I liked that’ or ‘I didn’t like that’ response accessible to me.

I think I could probably do with taking a page from Roger Ebert’s book in my approach to what I do. Over the last few years, especially after he lost his voice to cancer, it was my impression that Ebert began giving a pass to a lot of films I felt didn’t deserve one, but I admired his attitude of always walking into a film hoping to be impressed by it, and his willingness – which sometimes seems to go away in older critics – to embrace new cinema and new filmmakers with great zeal; to champion them rather than bemoan the idea of movies getting worse each year. I aspire to do this myself, and there are few greater joys than when I am able to hold something up and say ‘look what I found, it’s brilliant’.

Ebert embraced the new in other ways too, especially through blogging, which seemed to give him back the voice that was taken from him. His posts were often moving and funny in the same breath, but what was just as impressive for me was the way he encouraged writers, both his ‘far flung correspondents’ and other critics making a name for themselves online. Ebert was, in many ways, the inverse of the snobbery that the likes of Armond White have displayed toward young and online film writers. I was already writing before I really saw this from Ebert, but it gladdened me to see someone so respected and so long established in the field display such a gracious, even excited, attitude towards the way criticism has opened up through the internet.

I think the most important lesson that Ebert taught me as both a reader and a writer is that it’s not important how often you agree with a critic, what’s important is that you believe them, that their opinion carries conviction and weight. I sometimes thought Ebert was bonkers, I sometimes found him contradictory, but I always believed that what he wrote was his honest opinion, and that real thought had gone into that opinion. That’s what I aspire to as a critic, not being influential or being agreed with so much as being believed. I also loved his style; a one way conversation that often left you thinking more deeply about even a movie you didn’t like; it’s another thing I try to incorporate into my own work, but will never master in the same way.

I only ever saw Ebert’s television work years later, thanks to the internet, and while I loved his chemistry with Gene Siskel, and the way they both went out of their ways to review and to champion great little movies, those weren’t the things that really affected the way I saw him, or what I do in terms of writing. For me, it all comes back to the way that great voice translated on to the page. It’s no exaggeration to say that reading Ebert’s reviews when I was twelve years old profoundly changed the way I think about, talk about and write about cinema, perhaps even the way I watch films. Would I have written any of the pieces I’ve written here or elsewhere over the last 13 years had it not been for him? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I think if I had they would be very, very different, and probably not as good.

I didn’t want to write an obituary for Roger Ebert, I’ll leave that to people who knew him, instead I suppose what this piece has become is a personal thank you to the man. He never knew it, but he made a huge difference in my life. Thanks Roger.

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