Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

Everything started with Roger Ebert. The only reason I knew to start watching the films of a director named Martin Scorsese is because Roger Ebert wrote so lovingly of his work. When I was eleven years old, I began reading Ebert's reviews. I quickly became a compulsive viewer of Ebert & Roeper, setting my VCR to record the program every Saturday night. And his work became an indelible part of my life. I would wait by my computer on Thursday nights, counting down the minutes until Ebert’s reviews of the new releases would trickle in.

In April of 2002, I remember breathlessly reading his four-star review of Changing Lanes, a film I was eagerly anticipating, and I rejoiced in the fact that Ebert thought it was a four-star film. I rushed to see Changing Lanes opening weekend, and it is one of the first instances where I can recall going to see the movie with Ebert’s words in my mind as I watched it. Leaving the cinema, I was alive with excitement, to know that I felt the same way Ebert did. It was in that way that I first came to feel like a member of a film society.

I started seeing certain types of films that hitherto I had only examined with curiosity at video stores or seen in giant advertisements in newspapers. I felt almost too young and too unsophisticated to approach many of the great works of cinema, but Ebert’s reviews brought these giant films down to earth for me. In 2002 and 2003, I made ventures to see films such as City of God, Owning Mahoney, Raising Victor Vargas, Nowhere in Africa and The Quiet American in Austin cinemas. This was back when many of the larger multiplex cinemas in Austin – the Gateway and the Westgate, specifically – would screen art-house films for a few weeks alongside the other major releases. It’s telling that the world Ebert introduced me to – a world where American Splendor played alongside American Wedding at the Gateway in 2003 – would eventually morph into a world where The Descendants was banished to mostly “art-house” screens only years later.

A few months before I turned twelve, I began writing weekly film reviews for The West Austin News in April of 2002. Only weeks later, my father passed away. I don’t think I knew how to deal with that kind of pain at such a young age, and I believe I ran away from it by immersing myself in movies more than ever. Through his criticism, Ebert acted as a kind of guide into this new, frightening world that I was entering.

I religiously watched my way through Ebert’s Great Movies list, and I can proudly tell you his favorite film from every year he worked as a critic (for many of the years, I can even recite his entire top ten list by memory). On my computer, I bookmarked every list I could find from both Siskel and Ebert (their end-of-the-decade top ten lists are especially worth obsessing over).

I bought Ebert’s annual Movie Yearbooks and read them compulsively. Whenever I was in the car with my mom, I would bring my copy of his original Great Movies book with me. As she drove, I read his reviews and articles aloud – sometimes on a film we had just watched at home the night before, other times on a film that I was trying to convince her to let me see. She might argue that a particular film sounded a little too mature for an eleven year-old, but by reading Ebert’s reviews to her, I was trying to demonstrate that I was ready to watch these works. I wanted to feel and experience for myself what Ebert so articulately presented in his prose. Just before my twelfth birthday, I finally got permission to watch Raging Bull and Goodfellas for the first time. I can tell you just about everything Ebert has to say about both films, as I viewed them for the first time almost entirely with his review in my mind – what to watch for, what certain sections might mean.

On his website, I constantly entered the Movie Answer Man forum, hoping that Ebert would answer one of my film-related questions (all of the questions that he answered in his Movie Answer Man column were later printed and published in his annual Movie Yearbook – and it was my dream to be included in one).

As a 'film critic' in the Austin circuit, I was invited to advance press screenings days or sometimes weeks before new films were officially released in theaters, which meant I would have to form an opinion on my own without first consulting Ebert, which was a large step for me as a critical thinker. Days after finishing my own review, I would read Ebert’s piece when it was published, and I was always giddy when he felt the same way I did about a film. My first official press screening as a film critic for the West Austin News was for Adaptation in December of 2002. I thought it was one of the best films of the year, and I hoped Ebert would agree with me. Just days later, he posted his four-star review, and placed the film at #3 on his end-of-the-year top ten list.

I was also thrilled to discover that Ebert had relationships with many of the filmmakers he adored, including Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. I’ve read his masterful book “Scorsese by Ebert” more times than I’d care to mention (you only need to read the inside cover of “Scorsese by Ebert” to see a thank-you letter written by Scorsese – on New York University stationary in 1970 – to Ebert, thanking him for championing his work, to get a sense of the personal bond between the two). Even when Ebert occasionally hasn’t been crazy about one of Scorsese’s works, he still understands where the piece is coming from and what it means in the context of Scorsese’s obsessions and concerns as a filmmaker.

I remember being very disappointed that Ebert only gave Gangs of New York three-and-a-half stars when it was released in December of 2002, as I thought it was the best film of the year. Richard Roeper agreed with me – but then, in their annual Oscars segment “If We Picked the Winners” on Ebert and Roeper in early 2003, Ebert said that he felt he had been too harsh on Gangs of New York in his initial review – and of the five films nominated for Best Picture that year, he believed it deserved the Oscar. Ebert was always willing to look back on a film and reconsider it. He only gave 25th Hour three-and-a-half stars upon its original release in 2002, but he then placed it in his end-of-the-decade top ten list years later.

By the way, 2002 was a great year for film, in addition to being a seminal year for me as a growing film fanatic. Ebert’s #1 film of the year was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which was my choice as the year’s second best film. Maybe because it was the first full year where I made a point to see pretty much every noteworthy release in cinemas while keeping Ebert’s books by my bedside table, but I will always remember 2002 as a beautiful year of cinema (About Schmidt, Far From HeavenRoad to Perdition, About A Boy, Punch Drunk Love, The Pianist and Catch Me If You Can were among the other major releases that deeply affected me).

In 2002 and 2003, I tried to seek out every one of Ebert’s picks for the year’s best film from the past decades (in 2002 and 2003 alone, I recall watching, among many other films, Do the Right Thing, Platoon, House of Games, The Right Stuff, Amadeus, Nashville, The Color Purple, Mississippi Burning, JFK, Malcolm X, Hoop Dreams, Being John Malkovich, Dark City, Almost Famous and 2001: A Space Odyssey).

After doing a quick search in my computer, it looks I’ve quoted Ebert or at least mentioned him in at least every other review I’ve written. And there’s no competition – is the most visited website on my computer by a mile.

“A movie is not about what it’s about, it’s about how it’s about it.”

When you revisit a film after several years, you also revisit Ebert’s review. Most recently, I returned to his Great Movies article on Nashville, one of my favorite films, and it’s impossible for me now to talk about Nashville without mentioning Ebert’s beautiful words on the film. The meaning of the movie itself is tied to his prose – in a sense, without his words, the picture is not really complete.

I came to understand so much about Ebert through his blog the past few years – including the fact that he was a recovering alcoholic, and that he intimately understood the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous (which came across so understandingly and well in his review and appreciation of last year’s Flight). 

I looked to Ebert for his opinion on everything - his writing, both as a film critic and as a blogger, was the most consistently engaging and brilliant work you'd find online. One of the only reasons I’m on Twitter is so I can follow Ebert and Re-Tweet his opinions, reviews and the articles he comes across.

I have to confess that I oftentimes like to pretend I have a successful movie career, and I invent Roger Ebert reviews in my head – of what he might say about a film I directed, or in which I acted. This game is immensely satisfying, mostly because I like to think I've read enough of Ebert's work to formulate realistic-souding make-believe reviews in my head. Not that it would likely have ever happened (receiving an Ebert review means you've probably 'made it' as a director, and I'm pretty far from that), but I am now faced with the fact that there's not going to be an opportunity to read an actual Ebert review of one of my films.

Reading his last blog post just two days before his death – “A Leave of Presence” – I was deeply troubled to read of the return of his cancer, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that we would lose Ebert. It’s never registered with me that Ebert would ever cease being.

As I learned of Ebert’s passing at my internship last Thursday, a small part of me died inside. When I open my mouth from now on to inform someone of the master’s opinion – “Well, Ebert has consistently written that Nicolas Cage is one of our finest actors…” – my excitement about the conversation will give way to immense sadness. I’m prone to depressive bouts with nostalgia, and Ebert, who occupies the role of narrator when I think about anything related to film, will now be another person tucked into the past. The voice of reason is gone.

As one of my roommates said, as Ebert dies, so do hundreds of future films that will be forgotten without his efforts to spotlight and appreciate them. He championed the films that were forgotten, both large and small, and was responsible for the careers of many great filmmakers who, without someone like Ebert behind them, likely would not have achieved a great deal of their success. 

A world without Roger Ebert is something with which I’m not very comfortable. Gone is the generosity, the warmth and the understanding. I keep checking his website to see what Roger Ebert has to say about the death of such a great human being, and it’s only then that I remember. As a 'film critic,' I am at a loss for words. There are other critics I admire, but none in whom I can take comfort like Roger Ebert. As an aspiring filmmaker, I wonder, for whom will we make movies anymore?

A sample of some of my favorite Ebert reviews:

Almost Famous - Original 2000 Review

Minority Report Original 2002 Review

Raging Bull - Great Movies Review

Wonder Boys - Original 2000 Review

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