Roger Ebert was a man I always wanted to meet. Not necessarily to pick his brain about movies – his body of work, all of it easily accessible online, said enough – or politics – he was one of America’s best and most underrated political writers – but to simply say “thank you,” and let him know, face to face, what his work meant to me, my writing, and my life. For without ever literally conversing with him, Roger Ebert was a major, essential influence to me, a hero and a mentor for whom I had nearly limitless respect and admiration, someone I not only looked up to, but whose spirit I have tried to emulate throughout my critical career.
Today, Roger Ebert passed away at age 70, after his cancer – which robbed him of his iconic voice several years earlier – returned, and only one day after he explained – in this blog post – that he would be taking a ‘leave of presence.’
I am devastated, as are many today. A great and singular voice has departed this world, and the impact he left is impossible to calculate. To say Roger Ebert revolutionized film criticism as a popular art form would be the most dramatic of understatements. To many, he was ‘film criticism,’ and even after losing his television partner Gene Siskel, and later the ‘At The Movies’ TV show itself when cancer took his voice, Roger Ebert never diminished in relevance.
If an American read movie reviews, they read Roger Ebert. It was as simple as that. They could read other critics as well, or even write movie reviews of their own, but if you were even slightly interested in movies during the time Ebert wrote about them – which continued right up until his dying day – you read his work. He was omnipresent, syndicated to hundreds of newspapers across the country and, in the last decade, published online at a site devoted to archiving his entire, massive body of written work. No other film critic ever has, or likely ever will, be that far-reaching in their audience or influence, and we are immediately poorer for his absence.
For my part, I knew Roger Ebert through his writing. Others reflecting on his passing will certainly write about the TV show he hosted with Gene Siskel, and while that is an invaluable part of his legacy, the series was not a major part of my life. Siskel passed when I was very young, and while I sometimes watched the version he hosted with Richard Roeper, it was Ebert’s writing that always fascinated and excited me.
And the crazy thing is, I only agreed with his opinions on modern movies a small percentage of the time. Ebert’s tastes were often quite different than my own, and though it was common for me to read Ebert reviews I disagreed with, I still read and enjoyed each one equally. He was just that good a writer, a master of minimalism and simplicity, able to convey volumes with short sentences, brief paragraphs, and generally lean reviews.
Since he started writing reviews over four decades ago, Ebert always followed the ‘informational’ model of newspaper writing, where plot synopsis was a major, integral part of each piece. When most critics do this, I find myself immediately turned off and disinterested, and I shy away from lengthily plot description myself. But Ebert did it well. No, not just well – spectacularly. Just by describing a story, usually without embellishment, Ebert could tell us so much about its relative worth. Small, minute turns of phrase created an immediate, enveloping tone and atmosphere in each of his reviews, one that all could sense and be enriched by, even those who had little knowledge of movies.
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