Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Roger Joseph Ebert (1942-2013)

When I was younger I hated film criticism. It frustrated me that people would base their decision to see a particular movie solely on what a critic had to say about it, so I grew to think of critics as uninspired losers who haughtily discouraged viewers from seeing certain films. It seemed very unfair that a person, who couldn't be bothered to make movies himself, could affect the livelihood of people who devoted their lives to actually making movies. Of course I realize, in hindsight, that I was misinformed and that film criticism can just as often be used to champion the cinema and to direct viewers to movies they might otherwise overlook. And on rare occasions, when it is undertaken by a particularly skilled and brilliant writer, film criticism can also become a form of art in its own right.

Despite my aversion to film criticism I did, at times, tune into Siskel & Ebert. They were never appointment television for me but they were wildly popular and hard to overlook. If they rated a movie I wanted to see "Two Thumbs Up" I'll admit I was pleased but I didn't live by their ratings. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I was encouraged, by more than one fellow film-lover, to actually read Roger Ebert's reviews. He's the only critic I've ever read regularly. There are others that I check out on occasion and enjoy but Ebert's reviews always seemed just a little bit more special. One of the things I admired about his writing was his ability to understand that most, if not all, movies have an intended audience and to frame his reviews, to a degree, with that audience in mind. A lesser critic will pan a movie simply because it doesn't work for him as a viewer but that kind of personal insight does not, in and of itself, make for a particularly enlightening assessment of a movie's worth or value. Ebert, it seemed, could look at a movie and not only say why he loved it or hated it but why other people might also love or hate it. His reviews were at once personal and universal. Plus he was witty and compassionate and he absolutely adored movies. His love for cinema, and for life, was apparent to anyone who read him regularly because it simply emanated from his words.

There is a reason that I am reluctant to call my movie and television writing criticism: the reason is Roger Ebert. I wish I knew how to write about movies the way that he did. But I don't. I'm too much in my own head and too wrapped up in my own personal tastes. That is why my posts are opinion pieces, little more than journal entries, and his are true criticism. Criticism done so well that it becomes a form of art.

In 2006 cancer robbed Roger Ebert of a portion of his lower jaw as well as his ability to speak, eat and drink. Rather than allow this to silence him Ebert took to the Internet. He continued to watch and review movies; he also blogged, amassed an enormous following on twitter and penned an autobiography. His illness seemed to spur him on instead of slow him down. I had admired his writing for several years but now I was in awe of the man himself. He took on near-mythic proportions in my mind. I thought he was a super-hero. And that is why I was so stunned by his death last week. He'd suffered setbacks before. Setbacks that would destroy someone like myself. He'd met every challenge that had been hurled at him with courage and grace. I frankly didn't think I needed to worry about him. I took it for granted that he would go on, sharing his brilliant cinematic insights, indefinitely. I am devastated that we will no longer know his thoughts on the movies being made. It is a tremendous loss and I will miss him so much.