Requiem for a Critic: In Memory of Roger Ebert

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Roger Ebert died today after a long battle with cancer. I won’t be able to do justice to his life’s story, which is best left to Roger’s Wikipedia page. I will instead focus on what he meant to me.

Like many of my generation, I grew up watching “Siskel & Ebert” on TV. No disrespect to Siskel, but Ebert was the dominant personality on that show. It was really “Ebert (& Siskel).” It was Ebert’s “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” that I considered the official critical reception of any movie upon its release. I often disagreed with his take, but I felt like his opinion was a hallmark for the overall critical reaction to any film. Ebert *was* film criticism, with all apologies to Pauline Kael.

I was enamored with movies as a child, way beyond the typical casual interest we all share. Movies were a vital conversational currency in my family, obsessive even. I grew up watching family favorites like Star Wars, A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Chill, The Goonies, Die Hard, etc over and over and over again. I could probably recite 90% of the dialog for those movies from memory. I was raised to see movies as a perfect blend of art and entertainment. To spend hours talking about movies was perfectly natural to me. My love of film criticism grew from that, and I mean criticism in the truest sense – not negative sniping but true critique. What could be more natural than to see a movie you loved, and then want to explain to whomever would listen exactly *why* you loved it so much?

I spent years during college and shortly after writing movie reviews as a hobby. That was the origin story of this website, in fact. I never had any aspirations of this being more than a hobby, but I loved it. It was fun to “play critic.” After getting married, having kids, and launching my career, the amount of time I’ve had available to focus on writing film reviews has waxed and waned over the years. In all honesty, I’ve never been able to keep it up. I have restarted this site a dozen times, and I probably have a dozen separate archives of old film reviews that someday I’ll merge and relaunch as one cohesive site. So yes, my commitment to writing film reviews has eroded considerably over the years, but my passion for film and film criticism has never waned. And I’m not sure I realized until tonight how much I owed to Roger Ebert for that inspiration.

Movies have a strong and permanent place in my heart, and equally great is my love of passionate debate about what makes some movies great and some terrible. I love talking about old classics like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Lang’s other classic, M; Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. I love talking about Battlefield Earth and what an absolute clusterf— that was, or why The Thin Red Line was such a better film than Saving Private Ryan. I could talk about movies all day long to anyone who would listen, anyone. But to have that conversation with someone who has equally strong opinions and will give it right back? To share those opinions in a passionate debate with other cinephiles is simply divine. That’s what Siskel & Ebert captured and inspired: to seek out a conversation about the movies you loved – and hated – and to bask in that companionship among fellow film lovers.

While I could never equal Ebert’s talent as a film critic, I’d like to think of him as a kindred spirit in the love of movies and their power to reflect and transcend the human experience. And that’s why his passing makes me so sad tonight. A great light has gone out in the public discourse of movies and their merit and artistic value. There is no one alive who is even close to taking Ebert’s place in popular culture. Given the trend of how true journalism is eroding in our society, we may not see another like him again.

The “top 10 movies of all time” question is the most fun thing you can ask a film critic. We are lucky to have a relatively recent take on this ultimate question from Roger Ebert, from April of 2012. Here is Ebert’s final Top 10 list. I don’t think a single one of these would be on my top 10 list, as great as these are, but I would love to have had that debate with him. Fittingly, after reviewing his list, I discovered one film I’d not heard of before. And I’ll be adding it to my “to see” list. At the end of the day, no greater tribute could be paid to someone like Roger Ebert than to say that he helped you discover amazing films you might otherwise have missed.

Thumbs up, Roger. Thank you.

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