Friday, April 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert 1942 - 2013



Almost every writer has major influences that inspire and shape their style.  I have writers that I can say were major in transforming me into the writer that I am today.  I'd even have a few that I'd say I actually look up to and have a significant amount of respect for them.  Roger Ebert was one of those writers.

I discovered Roger Ebert when I was fairly young.  It was one Saturday afternoon when I stumbled upon the Siskel and Ebert and The Movies show and saw these two men discussing films that I loved.  They were talking in terms that I could understand and were willing to discuss special effects or how cool the monsters looked.  It was also incredibly engaging to watch the two men debate over their different opinions on a specific film.  My experience with film criticism before this moment was some stuffy older gentleman on what I believe was TVO (PBS style channel in Ontario) who used big words and only talked about movies I never heard about.  It was the discovery of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where I learned criticisms and reviews can actually be entertaining.

Living outside of the United States meant I didn't get a lot exposure to Ebert's reviews in the '80s or '90s other than his TV show.  I wasn't aware of his written work until the internet exploded on the scene.  I then started tracking down several off his older reviews and made him my go to source for any new movies.  Sure, I checked Rotten Tomatoes like everyone else, but I knew it was Ebert's opinion that mattered most.  Even if I disagreed with him, I'd be entertained by his reviews and be able to understand his point of view.

Roger Ebert loved cinema.  I think this is what really made him stand out as a film critic.  I know every critic should be a fan of the medium they review.  I am sure most are.  But you could really feel the passion and love Ebert had for movies.  When he saw a great film he would rave about the magic and the art of the movie and sometimes sound like a giddy child who went to Disney World for the first time.  If he just sat through a horrid film then it felt like he was bashing the film for not truly reaching its potential of the great medium.  Ebert truly believed film was one of the great art forms, and felt it was a powerful tool for storytelling and spreading profound messages.  You just needed to read a few of his reviews to also fall in love with cinema.

He was also an amazing writer.    His prose of praise created vivid pictures that could transport you right into the film.  His negative reviews full of snark and wit were always more entertaining than the bad films he was panning.  His reviews were more than just a write-up letting you know if you should see a picture, but rather providing their own form of entertainment and pleasure.  His work was an outstanding balance of insight, history, sweetness and humour.

Roger Ebert was an expert on cinema, but he was the farthest thing from a film snob.  His knowledge of cinema history had an expansive scope that very few other film critics or even film historians could boast.  Ebert knew what made films great and understood all the elements that created emotions in the viewer, but he also knew all the clichés and what had been used countless times before in film.  His reviews would be littered with these insights, but it never felt like boasting.  He never rubbed it in your nose how much he knew or understood.  Instead it always came off an enthusiastic fan, and just someone who has watched so much cinema because he was a lover.  I often would smile when he would be able to rattle off scenes and films that made him laugh or cry or scream.

The thing that really made him a true movie lover and the critic I enjoyed as kid was that he loved all genres.  He wasn't an uptight film critic that only gave four stars to independent or art films or only had time for "serious" cinema.  He loved genre movies like scifi, westerns or film noir.  I've always felt that some critics just parrot what the consensus says, and pan a movie because they think it should be ridiculed.  Ebert never cared about the consensus.  He is famous for being the rare critic who gave positive reviews for films like Speed 2 and Cop and a Half.  While most critics would try to prove their smarts by including obscure films in their top ten films of the year, in 2002 Ebert picked a wonderful scifi flick to be his top pick of the year, Minority Report.  He really didn't care about following other critics or worry about how a review would affect his reputation.  He stood by the films he enjoyed no matter the genre or if others thought it was trash.  The biggest proof of his skill was that he could always write reviews that justified his choice and you could always understand why he was loving or hating it.  I disagreed with him on both Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsmen, but his reasons and justifications for his praise were hard to dispute.

It is his lack of pretension that I wanted to bring to my film reviews.  He never tried to compare Total Recall to Citizen Kane.  He always asked if the film he was watching was a success in its own genre and if it would meet the needs of its fans.  He wasn't sacred about the four star review.  A film earned it if it delivered the best for scifi or a romcom or a comic book action or a political thriller or a period drama.  Plus the star rating never meant anything if you didn't read his reviews that analyzed the film and explained why it worked.  It was a huge relief for me as an aspiring film critic to realize it wasn't about looking at if a film works at some deep intellectual level, but rather if the filmmaker just succeeded at what he was trying to achieve. 

This isn't to say Ebert didn't look at that intellectual level.  I felt he was probably the best at uncovering golden nuggets or analyzing metaphors or being able look at social impact in almost any kind of film.  You could expect a smart commentary even for an action film or a raunchy comedy.  He didn't just reserve his smart thoughts for the highly acclaimed films.  As I said before, his reviews weren't about how smart he was or how much he knew.  It was just about his love of cinema.  I really believe he wanted to love every single film.  He came in with a joy and expectations to have fun.  He gushed every time he witnessed a film with great directing, an innovative story and unforgettable acting.

Roger Ebert was the mentor that I never met.  Much like with Ray Bradbury, reading his works taught me how to write.  He showed me how to capture an audience's attention.  Ebert showed me that it wasn't just telling a reader about a film, but the need to entertain and enrich.  I write reviews that are heavily influenced by Ebert's style.  I try to approach films the same way as him, where I look at the genre and try to give each film a chance to be excellent.  If my reviews are entertaining and insightful then it means I succeeded at following an icon.  I owe any of my great writing moments to an amazing teacher like Ebert.  His words are something I'll always hold dear.

I am not just talking about Ebert's film reviews.  In the past five years, I've discovered Ebert's Twitter account and his blog.  This is where he wrote about so much more than movies.  He wrote about what it meant to be a child in the '50s, he discussed the debate between evolution and creation, he had several insightful essays on politics, several beautiful pieces about historical moments, and almost any topic you could possibly think about.  His writing style was so beautiful and poetic that I found myself engaged even if I didn't agree with his thesis.  He was a man that knew a lot about history and religion and social politics.  He wasn't just a movie buff.  He knew so much more.  It was this knowledge that made him such a strong film critic.  It was his wonderful blog that opened my eyes to him being a truly great writer.  He was someone I read as much as possible, and I craved reading about his newest thoughts.

In some ways the existence of his blog was sad.  His major presence on social media was largely in existence due to the cancer that caused him to no longer be able to speak.  He wrote often, because it was his new way to communicate.  It also revealed to the world how much was going on in his head and how many insightful thoughts he had.  He wrote essays about his struggle with cancer, and they were always inspirational.  His pieces actually were uplifting and a great consolation while my family was going through my father-in-law's own battle with brain cancer.  They were sad, but also were written by a man with great courage.  He was a man who always seemed optimistic and was able to see the bright side of life.  He had a lot of hope and even more cheer.  He embraced life even when it was hard.  When you read those essays you realize it was written by a man who refused to be a victim, but a man who was spiritual and charitable even if his own life had major hardships.  His essays made me think this was someone I knew.  It definitely made me wish that one day I'd be able to talk to him and meet him in person. 

If I'm going to be totally selfish for a moment, I'm bummed that I'll never be able to read any more new words from him.  His work was a weekly highlight.  I loved to compare my film reviews against his, and I loved reading about his various insights on the world.  Luckily, he was prolific writer, and his works will last a long time.  He has several books and articles that I still will read and be inspired by.  His impact is going to continue for decades and decades.  I know countless writers that say Ebert was an influence and an inspiration.  I know he will be one writer I will continue to think about for the rest of my career.  I'll miss him.  Of course, not as much as his family and his wife, Chaz.

Thank you, Roger Ebert.  You showed me what it takes to make a great film review.  You showed me how to use wit and humour to enhance a work, but still be kind and gracious.  You were one of my teachers on how to write, and you will continue to inspire and guide me.

RIP Roger Ebert.  You'll always be one of the truly great critics and writers.  I give you two thumbs up.

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