I had to write an obituary for Roger Ebert today. It was sad, and strange, putting the words into the little window and pressing “Post.” I’m working at a newspaper now, partially because Roger Ebert helped me realize that a film critic was a thing I could be. And after a couple of decades of fighting, and fumbling, and figuring myself out – sometimes in private but more often in public, via the words I constantly put in a little window above a button that says “Post” – I have a regular job at a newspaper. And today, that job led to me writing about Roger Ebert closing the balcony for good.
This death is hitting me a little harder than I thought it would. It’s no mystery as to why: I’ve spent a lot of my time talking about movies. I’ve spent a lot more time watching ’em. Had a brief period where I thought I could make one or two, but that didn’t pan out. But this focus of mine on the art that is film, it can be sourced back to a few places, all of them obvious:
Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Disney. Looney Tunes. And yes, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.
Those two were the first people to clue me in that there were more to movies than just the watching of them. There were puzzles in there, complexity of emotion, and deeper meaning. I learned from that show what subtext was before I even knew there was such a thing as subtext.
I remember before one of our film screenings, I put together a mixtape of Siskel & Ebert clips, closing with the infamous outtakes session. 600 people in that theater, and the instant the theme song to that show kicked in? Man, the cheer that came out of that crowd! It was fucking heartwarming. It really was. I thought there’d be a laugh of recognition, maybe a stray “woo”. But that saxophone started winding its way up the scale, and a strip of film became an ampersand, and people legitimately popped like the Star Wars logo had just appeared on the screen in a burst of fanfare.
Oh sure, the boos came raining down after Roger took a shot at a couple beloved ’80s classics, but even the boos were warm and friendly. Siskel & Ebert were like the patron saints of the Film Geek. You can argue there were better critics, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t use their considerable influence for the purpose of honestly promoting art. They excoriated movies that wasted their potential, and championed the ones that said things about us, and not us as in “moviegoers,” but us as in “people.”
Not only that, they championed the idea of thinking about why you like the things you like. They didn’t dictate, or preach, even when they got preachy. They were sharing. They weren’t just giving their opinions, they were giving up little bits of themselves as well. Maybe my parents thought it weird when I’d tug on their shirtsleeves to stay up past my bedtime and watch Gene & Roger review some blockbuster I was itching to see on one summer or another. But as the world of film started to open up underneath my feet, they were reliable guides. Why wouldn’t I want to follow wherever they were going? Even when I didn’t agree with them all the time. Especially when I didn’t agree with them.
But Ebert, in many of his essays, put movies in a context that others didn’t. What he watched was often placed in the context of the life he lived. The man did a lot of living, and he never shied away from the opportunity to let that living inform his words. He was never just a stuffed shirt, a sweater and glasses. He was intellectual, but never at the expense of his heart. His brain was big, and he could dissect a frame of film down to the individual grains embedded within it; but his heart was huge, and the movies that worked on him worked on that big ol’ heart of his. How could you not admire that, even when you thought it was leading him wrong?
There were people, earlier today, who wondered if it was suicide. I could understand why. Writers are prone to it, I guess. Or at least that’s one of the romanticized views of the writer’s life. Some writers fit that role really well. Hunter went out spectacularly, his ashes shot out of a cannon atop a two-thumbed statue. And the assumption Ebert did similarly makes sense: Someone who lived the story Ebert lived, who felt the stories he felt throughout his career as a critic? That man knows the value of an ending. If he chose to write his own after all this living, could you blame him?
But that’s not what happened. His ending was a different one. He was a man who discovered what he was best at, what made him the best Roger he could be, and he did it as best he could, and he shared it with us as long as possible. And one day, after admitting he couldn’t do it the way he used to, he stopped. He looked at his wife, he smiled at her, and he left. And that’s kind of beautiful, really. He arrived at his ending naturally, with a smile on his face, looking at the wife with whom he shared all of his big, loud heart.
I guess this hurts like it does precisely because of that: He was one of the few who you could tell honestly cared about the things he wrote. Even if you disagreed, you could tell. You could feel it. He cared. Not a lot of people do anymore. And now there’s one less.