Roger Ebert had this elegance about him that made us all want to be like him.
He played an enormous part in the shaping of my life, and, in the days since his death, I’d discovered that I was far far from alone. It’s hard to think of him right now without some sort of hyperbole, so all I can do it proceed and pretend that “that’s what he would’ve wanted.”
Up until recently, societies would employ literary saps who would entertain the folks with tales or books summaries or relevant information. Though these saps were expected to be well-read and articulate, they were treated primarily as entertainers. That is not to say they were not taken seriously; but rather, people flocked to their re-telling of the history or tales or facts not so much to learn, but rather as an escape. In the West, they sometimes took the form of scribes, like the sap from Love in the Time of Cholera. In the Far East, where I grew up (Taiwan, to be precise), they were known as “book-tellers.”
That was Mr. Ebert to me. He was a knowledge siren in the guise of a jolly newspaperman. I was 15 when I discovered him, and had been speaking English for about two years. My family spent every penny we had (and some we didn’t) on a house in Westford, Massachusetts. We now owned a piece of America. Unfortunately, it was one of those pieces that was almost arrogantly bland, which was just what my mother wanted.
My mother, a preacher, was on an almost singular mission to prevent me from being exposed to anything “secular”, fearing that I would be easily corrupted. This included The Simpsons, school dances, and even Christian rock. That summer I came across a window to the outside world, in the form of a film encyclopedia on a CD-ROM, which led me to summaries of Mr. Ebert’s reviews. I then went down to the local library to check out his books, which I had to smuggle between novels I never read.
And so began the corrupting of my mind. Mr. Ebert was my “book teller”—the titles, histories, theories, and stories that he so effortlessly referenced in any given review amounted to so much more than that; he illuminated all these bright corners of the cinema world, with the casual matter-of-factness of a newspaperman. It was the same journalistic rigor that made Garcia-Marquez’s magical realism so potent. Mr. Ebert’s joy and discipline go hand-in-hand; he takes advantage of his training as a reporter to craft his reviews in such a way that his reactions, no matter how grand, are always justified by the cold hard facts. He talked about Kieslowski’s “anti-comedy” White with the same seriousness as his re-enactment of the gun gag in Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy. Each work was judged by its own merit, as filtered through his biases, which he has been very honest about. By treating every movie from every region and period equally, Mr. Ebert promised not a world that was better, but one that was bigger. During the time of Blockbusters and American Videos making sure the same 200 movies adorned the walls of every video store in town, Mr. Ebert’s retelling (and he’s a master story re-teller) managed to instill some hope in me.
In ’98, we even had a very brief correspondence over Stephen Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, I was ecstatic. Eventually I moved out of that little town, coupled with the advent of internet, and graduated from a film school. The world was every bit as big as he promised, and I tried getting by via treating every story on its own merit, plus my own biases. Though I was dismayed to discover that, even in a world as big as the one he reported, the likes of him are still very rare. I got a job producing and directing food ads, music videos, and martial arts movies. I have always worked hard to ensuring that each job is taken seriously, on its own merits.
And now that he’s gone, to paraphrase Mr. Ebert’s review of Inframan (a 1976 kungfu monster film that Mr. Ebert has enjoyed so much he changed his rating of the film from 2 stars to 3 stars some 25 years after his review was published), “a little light will go out of the world.”
–Pete Lee, San Francisco filmmaker
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Many consider Roger Ebert to be the Garth Brooks of film criticism. Both used exciting fake names (Reinhold Timme and Chris Gaines, respectively) and both are complete masters of their industries. I watched Roger since the first episode of his show and I loved how when I didn’t know if I would like a movie, his thumb would tell me what to think. I would stare at his thumbs while he was talking, waiting for any twitch of indication. Would it go up or down? What if the film he was discussing wasn’t objectively good or bad? Would his thumb break in two? Fortunately he never encountered such a film.
Being a professional movie critic like Ebert is one of my goals in life, so I work my thumb out vigorously each day, making sure it’s capable of making the hand gestures necessary for summing up my thoughts on a film.
I’ve developed an intensive workout routine for my thumb which until now has been a private affair. In tribute to the great Roger Ebert, I opened my exercise program to budding film critics (and people seeking physical therapy).
My class meets three times a day and each student is filled with the vigor of youth. Their thumb skills are getting better by the day, although I have doubts about their tastes in film. They unanimously think The Hangover was funny. Some of them even liked Inception.
None of my students will be able to fill the role of Roger Ebert. One of them, possibly, because he’s chubby and his name is Bert Rogers, which could lead to some confusion in his favor, but definitely none of the others.
It’s a different generation now, no matter how dextrous their thumbs.
—Ted Wilson of The Rumpus
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I’m a little too young to have fully appreciated Roger Ebert in the heydays of Siskel and Ebert, though “thumbs up, thumbs down” has, in my lifetime at least, been fairly ubiquitous. However, once a friend of a friend started posting Ebert’s tweets—perfect pearls of pithiness—on her Facebook page, I was inspired to do something I swore I wouldn’t: I joined Twitter.
In between asides like “G.I. Joe Retaliation: Maybe you should just play with your dolls instead” and “Ayn Rand died this day in 1982, inspiring indirectly my review of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ 31 years later,” he was re-tweeting pieces about Steubenville and drone strikes. When he could have coasted on his own name recognition and turned his website into a repository of greatest hits, he championed the work of other writers.
Ebert moved adroitly between forms. His personal essays about alcoholism, cancer, faith, family and his own impending death have an unforced intimacy and a jeweler’s eyes for composition. This big-heartedness found its way into his film reviews—how could it not? Ebert was renown for his deliciously vicious takedowns of films he loathed, but he could be unexpectedly kind to movies that might have proved easy marks.
In his review of The Host, an adaptation of another speculative ‘tween romance by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, Ebert finds empathy with the teenage protagonist, and with the girls who might relate to her: “When Wanda is about to kiss the boy she loves, for example, the film uses voiceover to warn her: “No … Wrong! No! He’s from another planet. True, in our own lives, we pick up warnings on that frequency: No! You’ll get pregnant! No! He’s from the other side of town! No! He’s your best friend’s boyfriend!”
Ebert was uniquely attuned to, and sympathetic toward, people who were different—often less privileged—than he was. In his essay “How I am a Roman Catholic,” he attributed this quality to lessons imparted by the Dominican nuns who taught him in grade school: “those nuns guided me into supporting Universal Health Care, the rightness of labor unions, fair taxation, prudence in warfare, kindness in peacetime, help for the hungry and homeless, and equal opportunity for the races and genders.”
After his passing, many of his greatest zingers and longform essays have been circulating the Web. As much as I relish them, what I will carry with me, as a writer and as a human being, is a single line: “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.
—Laura Bogart, Rumpus Contributor
* * *
When people think of Roger Ebert they probably think of numbers, specifically ten and two. No, Roger Ebert was not a fly fisherman, although I’m suddenly curious to see where he stood in regards to that Brad Pitt river movie.
His numbers were two thumbs up and top-ten lists. Of course, he was one half of a team of two film critics who, as they sat in an empty movie theater each week, summed up which movies were worth seeing and which ones didn’t make the cut.
Like most people, I also think of two-thumbs up and the first row of the mezzanine when I remember our beloved Roger Ebert this week. But I also smell whipped mashed potatoes and sea mist because my remembrance of him is woven with nostalgia from my childhood.
My family was religious about our Sunday traditions. We went to the beach, came home for dinner and never missed an episode of Siskel and Ebert at 6:30 on PBS. I can still smell my Mom’s cooking when I think of that show. There was never one without the other. Just like there is never a movie without a talking point, one of the many lessons I learned from Roger Ebert. In fact, if ever there was a teacher to whom I could attribute my film education, it would be him. He taught me that you could both love a film and still be critical of it. And inversely, that no matter how bad a movie is, there is still something to talk about.
Even though Roger Ebert lost his voice in 2006, he continued to talk about film. And even though we won’t be seeing him at the movies anymore, the conversation he began years ago continues today over long walks on the beach, during Sunday night dinners, and for all of us who love movies.
As for the Brad Pitt river movie? Thumbs up.
–Meg Taylor is a writer living in San Francisco. She is the sales and marketing manager at Small Press Distribution and writes about food for Wilder Quarterly.
Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.