I started reading Roger Ebert’s reviews when I was in university and just discovering that films were about more than just fun. Yes, they were entertainment, but they were also art, and learning about directors like David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick, and Quentin Tarantino was a huge eye-opener for me – I think it helped take me out of the idea that our world is such a perfectly safe, happy place where only good things happen to good people.
Once I found out about films, I stumbled onto Ebert. I liked his reviews because I tended to agree with a lot of what he said, and he wasn’t snobby. He looked at what a filmmaker was trying to do with the movie, and he thought about whether it worked or not. That meant that even if the film was being silly or girly or just plain dumb, he still watched it, and still put his opinions out there on what it was supposed to do.
I also liked that he could transform a review into a beautiful piece of writing. His review of Lost in Translation, where he discusses the final scene and how intimate and private the main characters need to be – so much so that we don’t even hear their final words – illuminated that scene for me. He could put into words what I felt in my heart, whether it was terror or annoyance or heart-squeezing emotion.
I’ve spent whole nights reading Ebert’s reviews. I vividly remember the first time I read the Armageddon review, which made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t stop crying. I remember learning about deep focus cinematography from his review of Citizen Kane, and about what a miracle it was that that brilliant movie was even made.
I remember the first episode of Ebert & Roeper at the Movies that I watched. Frankly, I didn’t even know that show existed until my wonderful friend set up an antenna and managed to get basic cable TV on his computer when we were in college (this was before the advent of YouTube). I was visiting his room that night, and a little depressed, and he said, “I’m about to put on Ebert & Roeper.” Who? I asked. And then he explained to me that Siskel and Ebert used to have a show, and now Ebert and Roeper were running it. I started watching and I laughed and screamed, “Yes!” to Ebert and “No!” to Roeper, and I agreed and disagreed as if I was right there with them.
(I’m pretty sure I was never invited to watch with my friend again, by the way).
A couple years ago, I heard that Roger Ebert was in town for the film festival, and he was signing books at a local bookstore. It was right after Mr. Ebert’s surgery, and he was unable to talk. My fiance (then boyfriend) was like, “I feel like we should go, because this might be the last chance.” I thought that was a little bit morbid, but I did feel like it would be lovely to meet this man who put all of my thoughts into words so eloquently.
We went, there was a short line-up, and I got his new release, Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert. I started reading it in line and got quite engrossed. And then we were at the front of the line, and I don’t remember what I said at all, or if I even got anything out. I think I said how much I loved his reviews, and I might have mentioned Lost in Translation or Citizen Kane. He smiled at me, we took a photo, and then he signed my book.
This is what it said:
I will miss this generous man, and his belief in the power of cinema and writing. I will miss seeing his reviews in my inbox every Friday. I will miss finding random articles of his, like his blog post on the amazingness of rice cookers, or his discussion of different ways to speak artificially. I will miss learning from the fearlessness and beauty of his reviews, which, I’ve now realized, inform the way that I write and think about my own book reviews. And I will miss the feeling of absolute rightness that I had when we both agreed on a moment in a movie, and then he stunned me by explaining, so beautifully and poignantly, exactly why it was that that moment mattered, in cinema and in life.
Thank you, Roger Ebert.