Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) – 10 Things I’m Going to Miss

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

10.       Bravery. He was born in the middle of a war and lived to fight in at least two other battles: the war with alcoholism where the best you can do is fight to a draw and the war against cancer where sometimes the odds are unwinnable. He underwent operations for cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and chin, and lost his ability to eat, drink and speak; he was fed through a tube for years; he wore a prosthesis for his jaw.  Through it all, he kept his dignity and kept interested in life.

9.         Social Media Savvy.   How did a newspaper man, an old dinosaur like me, move from print to Twitter, Facebook and blogging? Deprived of speech, he found a way to speak through a computer. He continued to touch readers/viewers, move them, interact with them, challenge them.  As he said to Esquire magazine in 2010: “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”

8.         Pulitzer prize for film criticism.  President Obama reacted to Roger Ebert’s death with a statement that said, in part: “For a generation of Americans — especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.” He became the first film critic to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His columns were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad.

7.         Championing of the underdog.  From the start, Ebert praised the work of the German-American director Werner Herzog’s madly experimental and controversial work from Signs of Life to Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Ebert once said this about Herzog:  he “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

6.         Promotion of documentary films.  Without his positivity about Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, according to Moore himself, the movie would have gone no where.  It was Ebert who publicly urged Moore to give a politically charged acceptance speech at the Academy Awards: “I’d like to see Michael Moore get up there and let ’em have it with both barrels and really let loose and give them a real rabble-rousing speech.”

5.         Openness to foreign language film.  Ebert was never an English-only critic. My own respect for him grew through his reviews of low-budget Quebec films – Léolo, for example – and Iranian films such as A Separation.  He also made a point of reviewing animated films, which don’t always garner the attention they deserve.

4.         Putting the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) on the international map.  Its becoming one of the world’s top festivals was in part due to Ebert’s faithful attending of the festival and his reviewing of festival films.

3.         A newspaper man.  In four decades of movie reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times, he learned to say something of weight in 800 words.  He learned, as the Russian short story writer Chekhov did before him, to write briefly on long subjects. He knew how to write good sentences: simple, clear, elegant. For example this one on Bill Murray playing President Roosevelt in Hyde Park at Hudson: “Murray, who has a wider range than we sometimes realize, finds the human core of FDR and presents it tenderly.”

2.         His loving words for his wife Chaz Hammelsmith: “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.”

1.         His je ne sais pas. His mystery.  How did an English grad student become a world-class film critic?  He credits Mad magazine: “I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine… Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin – of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine.” His idea of heaven was repeated viewings of Citizen Kane and an endless supply of vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream.  Words about death: “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter.” His final words to the public: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

J.S. Porter

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