Roger Ebert, who passed away today, is on my mind and the minds of millions of admirers all around the globe. His movie reviews were compelling micro stories, someone called his critiques poetry, even when he didn’t like the film.
From his review of North (1994), directed by Rob Reiner: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
His reviews of early cinema are relevant to any film enthusiast today. Here is what he had to say about Citizen Kane, which was made the year before he was born. Talk about poetry!
“Citizen Kane” knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.
When I was a kid, between watching his tv show, Siskel and Ebert, with Gene Siskel, the one that made any variation of “Two Thumbs Up” household words (according to IMDB he had his right thumb trademarked) and reading Pauline Kael’s cleverly caustic reviews in the New Yorker, I learned how to appreciate film as much more than just entertainment.
His thumb may have made him famous on TV, but Ebert was first and foremost a print journalist. He worked on newspapers in grade school, high school and college. With his acumen for writing came a love of movies — and on July 12, 2005, proclaimed Roger Ebert Day by the city of Chicago, he told a crowd of admirers why movies matter.
“If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class,” he said. “It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that to me is the most noble thing that good movies can do — and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.”
My admiration grew when he wrote about his experiences with thyroid cancer; how multiple surgeries changed his appearance, and about what it was like to loose his ability to speak but never his burning desire to be in the discussion.
“When you see me today, I look like the Phantom of the Opera. It is human nature to look like me and assume I have lost some of my marbles. People talk loudly and slowly to me, sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people who don’t want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away form illness. We don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality. That’s why writing on the Internet has become a lifesaver to me. My ability to think and write has not been affected, and on the web, my real voice finds expression.”
“I have not come here to complain, I have much to make me happy and relived. I seem, for the time being, to be cancer-free. I am writing as well as ever, I am productive. If I were in this condition at any point before a few cosmological instances ago, I would be as isolated as a hermit. I would be trapped inside my head. Because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream.”
Roger Ebert gave the impression that despite fear, discouragement and frustration his humor and creativity never let him down. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know I existed but through his writing, blogs and video, I felt his generosity, a quality people who knew him well refer to often. Roger Ebert will continue to humble and inspire even as we miss him and grieve his loss.