Some people really changed my life when it came to movies. I am forever indebted to my parents for helping me love and appreciate the occasional old-Hollywood film. We watched Scrooge, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas; there was always a John Wayne movie available to watch; and in my teenage years, my father made sure to help me understand how cool Cary Grant and Gary Cooper were. But, for the most part, my development as a fan of film was based solely on my own research, my own experience and my own evolving opinion.
There is, however, one man that helped me more than anyone else. His name was Roger Ebert. I remember the first time I read his review of The Usual Suspects. I thought he was so wrong; I still do. Then, I remember when I read his review of Blue Velvet. I was shocked to see someone in vast cyberspace who thought the same way that I did about an otherwise beloved dark neo-noir. His relatively-low three-star review for The Lord of the Rings perhaps acted as the greatest challenge I had as a fan of his; trying to embrace the unfortunate fact that others did not see the movies as perfect was a difficult task. Yet, as I learned to see movies as he did, I was more forgiving; even more so, I was more grateful for his detailed and astute insights. He had a way about him, not just as a competent movie-goer, but also as a writer in general. His grace filled his prose, and he was unafraid of retribution.
His fame preceded him. Forbes magazine called him the “most powerful pundit in America.” That is quite the laud, considering a relatively conservative magazine such as Forbes and its cornucopia of punditry in the form of O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Beck would give such credit to a liberal agnostic. Despite allegations of elitism, the New York Times recently referred to him as “a Critic for the Common Man:” his writing style was not of a film critic, but of a working-class newspaper man. Bias and favoritism of course extant, he was still mostly honest in his morality and criteria. Like the only other film critic to match his prestige, the late Pauline Kael, he was often perturbed by “morally repugnant” films and allowed morals to guide his reviews, hence the demise of “masterpiece” A Clockwork Orange.
He was brave and bold, and never let his reviews become the final word. It seemed at times he was saying things just to get the reader to think. He seemed greatly critical of The Dark Knight Rises, yet gave the movie three-stars. These are merely thought points, and the more his reviews were read the more it came to appear that he was not trying to teach, preach or mess with you; he was trying to help you become what this blog refers to as “the competent movie-goer.” He himself called it the “active movie-goer.” He was your friend, and would try to reach out to you through his writing.
Like a friend, he recognized the tender and fragile criteria of director’s intent and target audience. Said he: “When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. ” This was a fresh and real take on the review of films for which I am very grateful. He was refreshing and scathing, he was accepting and balanced.
Perhaps the most potent of the recent reminiscences was given by President Obama: “For a generation of Americans — especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.” I would like to concur with and contribute to President Obama’s quote. I think that Roger Ebert was the only man I ever read–including myself–who was able to capture the power of the movies and, at times, make them even more magical, even better.
I remember sobbing when I first watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I was just a little boy, and the entire film sucked me into a new reality. E.T. was, for an hour and a half or so, my best friend, tied to me just as he was to Eliot. Such feelings and memories were lost in time to me, until I read Ebert’s review on the film, beautifully written in the form of a letter to his grandchildren Raven and Emil. If you’ve never read Ebert before, this is where to start (hence the hyperlink). In this review, he truly, as President Obama said, captured the magic of film, and took us somewhere equally magical. Such talent is rare, and truly deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.
Not only could he remind the reader of old times, and rekindle the fire of belief in the non-reality of the screen, he could completely change your mind with his sarcasm, evaluation, and deduction. It is because of Ebert (a little credit goes to Paul Simon) that I like The Graduate. I didn’t like it before I read his explanation and review of the film and its comedy style. He was one of many to enlighten my understanding of La Dolce Vita, the film which I believe was his favorite, no matter what he says about Citizen Kane and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
Actually, he at times became a distraction to me. I wished that I could have taken a page from his own book and give a movie my complete and undivided attention (he, for example, never tweeted during a movie), but too often thoughts would come to mind about a film, a symbol, or a performance, and I would quickly open up his blog or his website on the Chicago Sun-Times and see if I was on the right track. It always felt good when I found myself to be right, as if Ebert was the final and utmost say on the matter. What was so obvious about his humility was how he, in his writing and elsewhere, refused to play the role of final say, despite the enigma and despite the reputation he had created for himself.
Movie critics are supposed to be yuppie elitists. He was not. He was incredibly logical, incredibly fair, and still somehow dreadfully stubborn. Those traits made him immortal, and they also are the reasons, perhaps more than anything else, that he was able to milk a few more years from his life. In the face of terrible cancer complications which resulted in a jaw-less face, a diet through a tube, and bed-rest, he came to review more films and a more regular basis than he ever had in previous years. He faced his ailments with bravery, and through it all, did that which made the world love him. The fight with cancer killed him. That fight also, in some poetic way, defined him. If his profound mix of stubbornness and humility enshrined him in immortality, they were also the last warriors in his own battle of mortality. Just like the films, he accepted the realities of life, and embraced the magic of imagination and timelessness.