A Tribute To Roger Ebert From A Lifelong Disciple

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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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