Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Roger Ebert Meant to Me.

When the news came down yesterday afternoon of Roger Ebert's death at 70 years of age, there was an outpouring of emotion which made me realize his reach beyond just film criticism.  Roger Ebert was a national treasure, and obviously appreciated by most as a writer of rich prose, deep thought, and a love for film I only wish I could possess.  Like any other amateur film critic, analyst, or simple admirer, I knew and appreciated and aspired to be like Roger Ebert.  Many sought out the internet to purge their emotions right away.  I had to take some time, to collect myself, and to try and explain just what he meant to me.

News of Ebert's passing stirred in me emotion which some may deem as extreme or over the top.  Not to me.  Roger Ebert and his partner, the long-lost Gene Siskel, were my introduction into another avenue of film at an early age.  It is a tragedy that they are now both gone.

I remember watching Siskel & Ebert as a young child, which might seem strange to some people.  When it came to film, I was always strange; I don't recall many other twelve year olds in the theater seeing Schindler's List.  The entire time there was Ebert, along with Siskel, bickering and agreeing and arguing and laughing about the most recent film releases all throughout my formative years.  What was most memorable to everyone were the disagreements, which were never staged but always with a good heart.  Siskel & Ebert felt much more important than entertainment to me.  They were the first film journalists to put a face on film criticism and lend it some legitimacy across society (apologies to Pauline Kael, who never reached as wide an audience).  Without their influence I might have never seen a film for more than what it was on the screen between the frames.  Their criticism opened up an avenue in my brain.

I was in high school when Gene Siskel died, and I had grown apart from the duo as most teenagers might.  I still adored and watched movies, but rather than reading or watching Siskel & Ebert on a Friday night there were many other idiotic things to occupy my time.  But nevertheless, Siskel's death was not lost on me.  And over the next several years, as I scratched and clawed my way into adulthood, Roger Ebert became more important to me.  I started having these crazy thoughts about being a film writer in my spare time, about trying to express my thoughts and knowledge on my own website.  I consulted the works of Roger Ebert immediately.

Of course I would and will never be what he is, but there is no harm in trying to emulate someone I idolize as a writer and a thinker.  I was that undersized under-talented kid taking jump shots on the black top trying to be Michael Jordan.  I immersed myself in Ebert's writing, reading every review he had to offer.  Maybe there are some I have missed but I will read them some day.  I found his "Great Movies" collection and studied the words he used to describe films like On the Waterfront, Amadeus, and Fargo.  Often times I would have to stop mid read to absorb the prose of Ebert's work.  Often times I was truly in awe.  His writing stretched beyond film and into culture and society, and as he lost his ability to speak in 2006 he became somehow more vocal through social media.  Ebert inspired me just like he inspired millions of film writers who would never have a voice had it not been for him.  But a funny thing happened as I studied Ebert's writing; I found stories of his life, read his biography, and learned so very much about him as a person.

What was so enjoyable about learning of Ebert's life is that everything I read was written by his own hand.  I learned about his early battles with alcoholism, his marriage to Chaz in the nineties, his love-hate, and ultimate love relationship with Siskel, and his valiant fight against cancer.  Roger and Chaz shared a love that belongs in the history books.  She seems like a wonderful woman, and I hope she can make it through this.  I wanted to try and comb through some of my most favorite reviews, clips, and arguments of the Siskel & Ebert archives, but I fear that list would go on endlessly.  And to be honest, I knew his cancer was getting the best of him and this day would be sooner rather than later.  But that doesn't soften the blow, or the thought that the second half of the duo I admired and followed is now gone.  Regardless of heaven or wherever, I want to think Ebert is sitting down in a magical and pain-free theater in the sky, right next to Gene Siskel, to watch Saturday Night Fever followed by Cop and a Half.

Hopefully some of you get that last part...