My all-time favorite Roger Ebert moment didn’t have anything to do with movies. There was a certain sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times since the 90’s who was known as a real windbag. This sportswriter was verbose as hell, yes, but he was also bombastic, loudmouthed, egotistical, and petty. Upon first reading his columns, I assumed it was simply a public personality, but after he quit the newspaper in 2008 (giving an interview to the rival Chicago Tribune in the process), the stories which popped up out of the Sun-Times offices revealed a man who was small and a classic bully. I refuse to write down his name because he doesn’t deserve the extra attention and because he really is a rotten enough person to bomb me through email if he ever read this blog. It was Ebert who gave this guy the most pointed goodbye message when he wrote in a public note “On the way out, don’t let the door bang you in the ass.” Exact words.
That moment was important because it sort of solidified Ebert’s mentality as an everyman critic. Said sportswriter was widely hated in Chicago, and in that one statement, Ebert – a former sportswriter himself – was speaking for hundreds of thousands of people dying to tell him that exact same thing.
As a writer, Roger Ebert was one of my bars. Every time I wrote something which I thought was on a level as good as he could be, he would end up raising it, and much to my madness, he would also make it look very easy. While Ebert never learned of my existence, this was a kind of game I was playing with him in secret as a way of challenging myself to be a better writer. The trick was that Ebert always WROTE like an everyman while still maintaining the influence of the literature he loved. That made Ebert come off as witty, brilliant, passionate, educated, and observant while still being accessible at the same time. That’s not an easy trick to duplicate. I like to think that I pull it off when I’m at my very best, but it takes a hell of an inspiration for me to get there. It’s still asking me to write above and beyond my normal level. The trick is that Ebert never came off as mechanical, which is something I tend to struggle with.
Ebert spoke to me through one of my most beloved escapes from reality: The movies. It’s hard to think that anyone, anywhere, could hold so much influence over an entire generation of writers through the simple task of reviewing movies. But when you give it some real thought, this actually makes perfect sense. Movies are one of the ubiquitous forms of media in society. They’re everywhere – aside from the regular theaters, it’s easier than ever to access movies on television and online and through the countless places that sell DVDs. A lot of the expressions we use from day to day had their origins in a movie scene. Has anyone ever made an offer you couldn’t refuse? They just quoted The Godfather. Movies speak to everyone in some form or another, whether that be famous quotables, famous scenes or characters, or even parodies of popular films.
Growing up in Buffalo, I was a frequent reader of Jeff Simon, the film critic for The Buffalo News. A lot of the things that can be said about Ebert could easily be applied to Simon. It was Simon’s columns that taught me to think more about what I was seeing, and Simon is a promoter of small indie films that would otherwise go ignored in Buffalo. Simon is a great critic, by all means. I disagreed with him a lot, like everyone does with film critics. But Simon’s own way of writing his interpretations of movies could easily come across as pompous and, at times, even insulting, so I wasn’t able to appreciate his work as a kid the way I do now. Ebert changed the way I thought of movie reviewing. He had a talent for slicing through four or five layers of allegorical depth in any given movie and challenging the way I looked at it. When I started reading Ebert’s work, I started taking a more critical look at movies myself, and asking myself upon shutting off a movie, “What’s REALLY going on here?” How many critics can say they turned people into better movie watchers? He was never snide or condescending about the way he looked at movies. (He could sometimes be pretty insluting, though. His review of Atlas Shrugged, Part I is a delightfully venomous attack on objectivism, and his review of Fanboys relied on stereotypes so tired that every popular geek franchise fanbase bombed him with letters to the point where he was forced to apologize.)
My one complaint about Roger Ebert was that he was never able to quite accept the changing times as we would have liked. He seemed to take the popular mantra about age 30 being the new 20 a bit too seriously, though there’s truth in it. He hated the idea of video games being considered a form of art and passionately campaigned against it long after the idea was pretty much set in stone. (And despite not knowing very much about video games.)
I got a lot of Friday yuks from reading Ebert’s reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. In my line of work, they were always a wonderful way to pass through the long wait times between runs. While riding through The Loop, I always made sure to keep a couple of books on me, but when the movie reviews rolled in through the Friday editions of the Sun-Times, I rarely needed them. Except if the book I was reading happened to be one of the many authored by Roger Ebert. Then it was fair game. Farewell, Roger Ebert. Everyone gives you a thumbs up, even on the occasions we disagreed with you.