Roger Ebert died this past week and even though I never met him, he made my life better. I remember being sad about the passing of certain musicians who meant a lot to me like Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald. Or performers like Gene Kelly who brought a lot of joy into my life through his dance and his screen persona and the way he wore a hat. I become sad at the fact that no new work from them is coming and I will have to be content with their remaining legacy. When an artist shares their work with the world, and therefore me, the relationship consists of them creating and me appreciating. The work can be extraordinarily important to me, inspiring great happiness or tears, which can sometimes be the same thing. But with Roger Ebert, I not only will miss having new work of his to enjoy, I feel like a real relationship has ended.
I loved watching Siskel & Ebert every week and kept a log of what movies they reviewed, what they recommended, and what I'd seen. When the internet came into our home, I read Roger's columns for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1996, Roger started a biweekly series of Great Movies. This wasn't a top-100 list but a selection of movies that met this definition: a movie you can't bear the thought of not being able to see again. This invaluable series led me to filmmakers like Buster Keaton, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Yasujiro Ozu. It introduced me to some of my now favourite films like The Lady Eve, The Last Picture Show, The Night of the Hunter, and The Hustler. Roger illuminated elements I hadn't noticed in Citizen Kane and the films of Hitchcock, not with the dry explanation of a film theory textbook, but with the enthusiasm of a guy who truly loved movies.
Reading him over the years, I could piece together elements of his life as they were revealed. His youth and education, his love of England walks, his socially liberal views, his marriage to his amazing wife Chaz. Then in 2006 when cancer and various complications caused him to lose his voice, he wound up writing even more. He kept up his reviewing schedule and added a blog, Roger Ebert's Journal. In this blog, he wrote about anything that came to mind. He wrote about the state of movies a little bit, but he wrote about his life, his memories, cooking, politics, dogs, and anything else. This led to his superb autobiography Life Itself, which reads like a series of vignettes. I think this is probably the best way to write a memoir, since memories jump around a lot, and it's only after you collect a lot of them that you begin to see the whole.
Roger wrote so well and so passionately about the movies that he revealed himself and I felt like I knew him. He often brought up this quote from Robert Warshow: "A man goes to the movies. The critic must admit that he is this man." This means that there is no such thing as a subjective review of a movie that will empirically list its qualities and faults and give you a definitive answer as to how good it is. Roger wrote about what happened to him when he saw a movie. He wrote from his heart and his heart wound up in his reviews.
Roger and I didn't necessarily like the same movies, but I wanted to know what Roger thought about everything I saw. He wasn't just knowledgeable about movies, he was knowledgeable about life. He had well-formulated opinions about moral questions and about what restaurant to go to in Cannes. He described film festivals and the experience of going and meeting people, both movie makers and random people in line. He made it seem pretty wonderful and I wanted to go with him. My wife and I ended up going to the Telluride Film Festival for our honeymoon.
When I was 18 or 19, I became interested in movies on a more serious level. Roger opened the doors to the level of appreciation and understanding that I was seeking. In trying to figure out why a movie worked for me or didn't, I was trying to figure out myself, my feelings, my moral compass. I never knew Roger Ebert, but I felt like I did. I'm going to miss him greatly.