Written by: Jill Blake, CC2K Film Editor
Note: Dispatches from The Fence is taking a break this week to honor beloved film critic, writer, and humanist Roger Ebert. My good friend Josh Mauthe, co-host of the Library Police podcast, has written a beautiful tribute to Mr. Ebert. Josh graciously allowed us to republish his essay here on the site. I’ll be back next week.
On the Passing of Roger Ebert
by Josh Mauthe
Today, I wrapped up teaching for the day and checked my phone to find multiple messages all telling me the same thing: Roger Ebert had finally succumbed to the cancer that had plagued him for so long.
It would be fair to say that his death wasn’t entirely unexpected. Not two days before, Roger had posted a blog entry entitled “A Leave of Presence,” in which he informed his readers that his cancer had returned, and that he would be cutting back on his writing and his online postings that had come to so define his presence in the past few years. “It means I am not going away,” he wrote. “What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”
It was the optimism and hopefulness that so defined so many of his writings, and it left many – myself among them – completely unprepared for the shock of his death two days later.
And now I find myself sitting here at night, thinking about how surprisingly hard I’m taking the death of Roger Ebert. For someone I never knew, Roger Ebert has profoundly influenced me, and it’s safe to say that, without me even realizing it, he became an inspiration to me, a role model, and someone who I hoped would always be there. And the fact that he’s not there anymore leaves me incredibly saddened not just for me, but for the future as well.
Unlike so many, I didn’t really come to know Ebert through his television show. Of course, growing up, you couldn’t help but be aware of Siskel & Ebert, but I never really spent much time watching their show. I was interested in movies, but I was young, and I treated them like most people do – as fun, but disposable, ephemera. (In fact, the biggest memory I have of Siskel and Ebert on television comes not from their own television show, but from their amazing episode of The Critic, which you can find in its entirety here. It’s just another testament to the men’s friendship and love for their jobs, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s hilariously funny.)
But as I hit my adolescence and became more interested in film as an art form, something else was happening in the world: the Internet. And as anyone who knows Roger knows, he loved technology and the way it allowed him to connect with people. And so it was that I started reading, for the first time, Ebert’s reviews.
I was floored by what I read. Here was someone who never neglected the art of films or their deeper symbolism, but still seemed to find the fun and the joy of movies even all these years into his career. Here was a man that could find the good side of Speed 2: Cruise Control or The Haunting, but still find room to love movies like My Dinner with Andre or Do the Right Thing. He was a filmic omnivore, and it showed me that I could treat films with a critical eye and still love them – I didn’t have to trade in a sense of joy for a “serious” approach.
Moreover, he would draw my attention to films that I might not have ever seen otherwise. It wasn’t just the relative unknowns that he championed; it was his Great Movies series, or his constant references to the works of Bergman, Scorsese, Fellini, Welles, and so much more. Every time you read a review of his, you wanted to watch all the movies he mentioned just because you wanted to experience all the things he had seen. And as he continued to write, it wasn’t just films – it was thanks to him that I read Cormac McCarthy for the first time, and never looked back from there.
In his reviews, he would criticize movies I loved and left me thinking about the points he made; he defended movies I couldn’t see the good in and made me appreciate them in new ways. When he agreed with me, I was secretly thrilled; when he disagreed, I would sometimes be disappointed, but would find myself seeing the points in everything he wrote. And in doing all of that, he shaped the way I look at films to this day. His First Rule of Movies – “A movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it goes about it” – remains one of the best laws of criticism about any media, not just cinema, and has shaped the way I approach books, art, videogames – you name it.
But more than that, I think the thing that I most fell in love with in Ebert’s reviews was his prose. The man was a craftsman of the first order. Everyone remembers him for his amazing and hilarious criticisms, and rightfully so – how can you deny the hilarity and viciousness of some of these?
Dirty Love wasn’t written and directed, it was committed. Here is a film so pitiful, it doesn’t rise to the level of badness. It is hopelessly incompetent… I am not certain that anyone involved has ever seen a movie, or knows what one is.
Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time. Oh, I’ve seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were. Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line…Mad Dog Time should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor.
Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. … Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.
“The Last Song” is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, who also wrote the screenplay. Sparks recently went on record as saying he is a greater novelist than Cormac McCarthy. This is true in the same sense that I am a better novelist than William Shakespeare. Sparks also said his novels are like Greek Tragedies. This may actually be true. I can’t check it out because, tragically, no really bad Greek tragedies have survived…To be sure, I resent the sacrilege Nicholas Sparks commits by mentioning himself in the same sentence as Cormac McCarthy. I would not even allow him to say “Hello, bookstore? This is Nicholas Sparks. Could you send over the new Cormac McCarthy novel?” He should show respect by ordering anonymously.
And that doesn’t even get into the justly famous Brown Bunny debacle, or the Deuce Bigalow dustup. But as amazing as those could be, there were his positive reviews, which could absolutely soar and astonish in their thoughtfulness, insight, and profundity:
Sean Penn never tries to show Harvey Milk as a hero, and never needs to. He shows him as an ordinary man, kind, funny, flawed, shrewd, idealistic, yearning for a better world. He shows what such an ordinary man can achieve. Milk was the right person in the right place at the right time, and he rose to the occasion. So was Rosa Parks. Sometimes, at a precise moment in history, all it takes is for one person to stand up. Or sit down.
We are connected with some people and never meet others, but it could easily have happened otherwise. Looking back over a lifetime, we describe what happened as if it had a plan. To fully understand how accidental and random life is – how vast the odds are against any single event taking place – would be humbling. … This is the kind of film that makes you feel intensely alive while you’re watching it, and sends you out into the streets afterwards eager to talk deeply and urgently, to the person you are with. Whoever that happens to be.
It is strange how the romances of the teenage years retain a poignancy all through life – how a girl who turns you down when you’re 16 retains an aura in your memory even long after you, and she, have ceased to be who you were then. I attended my high school reunion a couple of weeks ago and discovered, in the souvenir booklet assembled by the reunion committee, that one of the girls in my class had a crush on me all those years ago. I would have given a great deal to have had that information at the time.
Especially in its opening scenes, Ballast is “slower” and “quieter” than we usually expect. You know what? So is life, most of the time. We don’t wake up and immediately start engaging with plot points. But Ballast inexorably grows and deepens and gathers power and absorbs us. I always say I hardly ever cry at sad films, but I sometimes do, just a little, at films about good people.
Life’s missed opportunities, at the end, may seem more poignant to us than those we embraced — because in our imagination they have a perfection that reality can never rival.
First and foremost, Roger Ebert was a writer. And every Friday for many years, his website was one of my first stops. I would read reviews of movies I had no intention of seeing. I would read about movies I had never heard of but wanted to see now, simply based on his description. And often, I would howl in laughter at his criticisms, or just his sly, wonderful humor that came through constantly.
More than that, though, there was his innate kindness and love of humanity – not always of individuals, but of people as a whole. You couldn’t read his reviews and not get a sense of the man within, and get a sense that here was a fascinating, complex man who was constantly striving to make the most of his life. It’s something that never left him. Even when cancer took his jaw away from him, he never looked back. In fact, he entered a new golden age for his writing, taking to the Internet, his blog, and Twitter to create a new voice. For most of us, the loss of our jaw would have been an insurmountable setback. For Roger, it seemed to be only a tiny bump in the road. And as he blogged and wrote, you got the sense that he was truly at peace with all of this, and still found so much of the world worth living.
It was a sense that you got if you read his memoir, Life Itself. It was a book about movies, yes, but about love, and alcoholism, and death, and cancer, and his wife, and – as the title suggests, life itself. It was a funny, thought-provoking, funny, moving piece of writing, and I finished it even more in awe of a man who had already shaped so much of the way I looked at the world.
I could go on for pages and pages about Ebert. How he changed the way I looked at film. How his writing shaped the way I try to write my reviews and much else of my life. How his worldview and his approach to other people reminded me that the world needed more people like him, and gave me an example to try to live up to. How his constant focus on human dignity and goodness left the world a genuinely better place. How his political views were always driven by his respect for others, and not in blind partisanship. But in the end, I want to leave you with this, which is from his memoir, Life Itself:
“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. 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. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
I think that Roger Ebert did contribute joy to the world. And if you doubt it, try to visit his overloaded website tonight, or watch the trends on Twitter, or read the countless pieces like this being written tonight. And that joy is going to be sadly, sadly missed in the future.
We’ll miss you, Roger. I’ll miss you. You were a role model and an inspiration to me, and the world is a less literate, less interesting, and just plain lesser place without you in it.
(originally published here)