A Tribute To Roger Ebert From A Lifelong Disciple

Roger red seats A Tribute To Roger Ebert From A Lifelong Disciple

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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C200512 A Life in the Movies 01 A Tribute To Roger Ebert From A Lifelong Disciple

Ebert himself had an encyclopedic knowledge of film, of course. He could have been a Professor, and for much of his life, he actually did travel to the University of Colorado at Boulder – the very college I now attend – once a year to lecture and explore film. He would choose a movie, one he felt was important for students to explore, and would go through it, shot by shot, in the dark, analyzing every frame over the course of the day to expand his students’ understanding not just of the film in question, but of the complexities of the cinematic medium itself.

Sadly, I came to the University of Colorado after Ebert’s health had prevented him from making his annual pilgrimage to Boulder. Now that he has passed, I will never get to meet him. More than anything, I am just sad I will never get to thank him, because while it is, as noted above, impossible to calculate his influence on culture at large, I can tell you exactly what his writing did for me.

First and foremost, I owe a great stylistic debt to Mr. Ebert. My voice continues to develop, of course, as I am still young, but from about 2010 to now, the voice I most commonly adopt when reviewing new movies is one that borrows plentifully from the works of Roger Ebert. I feel my best reviews are the ones I keep short; the ones that get right to the point, without a long introduction, and waste as few words as possible from start to finish. Ebert once explained, in a blog post celebrating the late Gene Siskel, that his old TV partner had taught him that reviews should open like newspaper articles, with the most important piece of information up front. Most movies writers do not bother with a ‘lede.’ Ebert did. And at my best, so do I, because that first sentence should not go to waste; it should be a thesis unto itself, a graceful and declarative statement that sets the tone for the writing to come.

Whenever I find myself struggling to review a particular title, I remember the things I have learned from Roger Ebert, and force myself to simplify. Do away with this pedantic introduction! I tell myself. Master Ebert would not abide by it! Get to the point! And once I get to that point, the rest stems naturally from there.

When I was compiling and editing my recently published book, Fade to Lack, I realized that the arc of my writing style over the past decade has been one long exercise in the art of ‘paring down.’ Saying more with less. Detaching oneself partially – but never entirely removing one’s personality – to let the film speak louder than the writer. These methods often made me sound like Ebert, but that was for the better. Having a wholly ‘unique’ style is worthless if it is not successful, and before I took Ebert’s approach as an anchor for my work, my writing was not successful. The critical voice I have ultimately developed is ‘unique,’ on the whole, as I break from Ebert in many ways, most notably in my disdain for plot synopsis, affinity for more clearly developed conclusions, and longer, more complex sentence structure. But Ebert’s voice exists in the DNA of my own, and I believe it always shall. I am a stronger writer for it.

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roger ebert A Tribute To Roger Ebert From A Lifelong Disciple

Secondly, I owe Ebert gratitude for all the wonderful lessons he taught me through his reviews. More than just how to write about movies, I so often found new ways to watch and analyze films through his work. Most notably, the notion that “movies made for ‘everybody’ are really made for nobody in particular” is a personal mantra of mine, even though I have now forgotten which of Ebert’s reviews the quote came from. Ebert did not present a huge number of radical notions about filmmaking, but he presented the basic ideas more clearly and powerfully than any other film critic, living or dead.

Thirdly, and a bit more trivially, I should thank Ebert for the name I borrowed from him for the better part of seven years now. When I was brought on by The Denver Post’s YourHub to write movie reviews in 2007, I named my blog Jonathan Lack at the Movies, because I could think of nothing else. Siskel and Ebert’s show, though I was only slightly familiar with it, simply popped into my head, and I carried it with me through my YourHub days and on to my own website, founded in 2011, not leaving it behind until I joined the staff of We Got This Covered.

These are things I shall never get to thank Roger Ebert for, and that saddens me. I wish I could tell him how much he meant to me, and I how much I now miss him, even though he has been gone less than a day. Even these past few months, when he has been writing less and less, have felt a little melancholy without regular blog entries and reviews (those blog entries deserve several long tribute articles themselves, as they were consistently moving windows into Ebert’s mind). As a lover of film, the world simply feels less full with Roger Ebert alive to survey the cinematic landscape and report his findings. He was the best of us, and remains so, even in death.

He was also, of course, the most graceful of film critics, and of writers. He ended yesterday’s blog post with these words, the last he would ever publish as living man, and they say it all better than I ever could:

“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Thank you Roger. See you there.

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  • Cliche Claude

    It is by reading Roger Ebert’s reviews that I was tempted to try my hand at reviewing movies, and it is by reading Roger Ebert’s reviews that I knew I had no business reviewing movies. Great article!