The elements in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying.”
So wrote Roger Ebert.
For some, it can be difficult to believe that a man who spent his time sitting and watching movies and being highly opinionated about them could possibly be one of the most prolific writers of our time, but he certainly was. Ebert, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, took movies very seriously—and one of the biggest mistakes people make about a man of his position is to assume that that’s a bad thing. Have you never before had a film affect you powerfully? Do you not feel influenced by the things you’ve seen? Cinema is an art form, and a very important one, as not only is it one of our most mainstream—and therefore most frequently interacted with—but it has so many facets. There are those films whose words are great, as with Pulp Fiction, which Ebert thought could easily have been as successful as an audiobook; and those with visuals that envelop our imagination in the most intimate of embraces. Animation, for example, can allow shots and characters we could never otherwise replicate. The simple tilting of a camera, as with such German Expressionist films as Vampyr, can leave wide impressions on our minds.
When it came to reviewing films, Roger Ebert had a truly incredible passion for his work. That comes off in the way he gushes on about a beloved film, making his pieces extremely pleasant to read. The incredible thing is that, after having personally read so many of his reviews, I have the distinct, certain feeling that I’ve learned something—learned why certain films affect me the way they do, learned how films can be a reflection of their times, learned to love movies more and yet judge them more harshly in the same breath. Most importantly for you, perhaps, is that through reading the man’s work I feel I have become a better writer. I am now and will always remain thankful for that.
As a writer, Roger Ebert had the philosophy and insight of a poet; there are times while reading his words when things click so well you swear you understand fundamentals about your own personality and life better, as well as the balance of subtle (and not so subtle) scorn and a comedic genius eclipsing many of the films he wrote about. Take this excerpt from my personal favorite of his reviews, that of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which remains one of the funniest articles I’ve ever read (it’s important to read “The Fall of the Revengers,” the extended version of the review, rather than simply the shortened version he put in his column): “There was no starting out slow and building up to a big climax. The movie is pretty much all climax. The Autobots® and Decepticons® must not have read the warning label on their Viagra. At last we see what a four-hour erection looks like.” Much has also been said of his famous review of the movie North, in which he says “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” What’s particularly shocking for readers (or viewers of his classic show with Gene Siskel) is that he usually approached films he intensely disliked with a certain grace, a calmness that allowed his gift for sarcasm to be most effectively demonstrated.
He wrote much more than simply reviews, however. One of his best pieces is not actually a review of a film but of an audience watching the film. In it, he describes an afternoon in 1967 when he attended a viewing of Night of the Living Dead, as did a great deal of children. What begins as a pleasant, nostalgic look at a group of children attending a monster movie ends with a heartbreaking account of their not being able to handle such a violent film and a very pointed, effective critique of the Chicago Police Censor board of the time—one that, to an extent, still rings true today with our “standardized” Movie Ratings Board.
And of course, besides other explorations of the medium, there was his classic television show, his political pieces, his acclaimed memoirs, and even audio commentaries on such films as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Dark City. The man was an absolute powerhouse when it came to his output. He wrote 306 movie reviews last year alone. In fact, it might amaze people to know that for someone so magnificently articulate, he could not actually speak—yet since losing his ability to do so in his ongoing battle with thyroid cancer, he used social media such as Twitter and Facebook to write more than ever.
Those who knew Ebert well often said that what you saw was what you got, and as a young, nerdy boy who never got to meet the man in person, there’s nonetheless no doubt in my mind that I got to know him very well—and that he had a powerful influence on my life. Perhaps because I haven’t read every single one of his reviews, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that he won’t ever write anything again. Perhaps a better reason, though, is that the man seemed a universal constant: When you had movies, you had him. It was always so very clear in his writing, in his blog posts, in the active responses he gave to those who commented on his pieces, that this was a man beset by passion, not only for film (though he had a lot of that), but for people. For all the nastiness he could show a really terrible movie, he was, in truth, filled with more love and compassion than a lot of us claim to have. He impacted millions with his poignant words, made so many of us laugh and think, and, yes, he did save some us from really bad experiences at the movies.
Roger Ebert, you were a wonderful man, and from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of this paper, I would like to thank you for all you gave to us … and to me. You led a very fulfilling life, and as you well know, it was more than just yourself you were fulfilling.
Rest in peace.
Chris White-Sanborn is a New Times intern. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.