April 9, 2013

ZAHOS: Remembering Roger Ebert

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I write these words on Sunday, about 72 hours after the news broke, and it will take around the same amount of time for this finished column to find its way into the paper you are holding or the website you are browsing. Six days is an eternity in the world of op-eds, but it’s barely enough time to process the New York Times alert that lit up my phone Thursday afternoon: “Roger Ebert, Longtime Film Critic, Dies at 70, Chicago Sun-Times Reports.” I was just starting to study for an accounting prelim I had later that evening, and it’s putting it lightly to say that I was in no mood to hit the books. For many of us, this is a celebrity death without precedent.

President Barack Obama summed up Roger’s legacy in an official White House press release, surely the first for any late movie critic: “For a generation of Americans … Roger was the movies.” While I would amend the statement by making “generation” plural, the essence remains true. Roger changed how we, the general public, went to the movies. Watching movies was no longer sufficient — you had to think about, talk about, even yell about them, as he and Gene Siskel did on TV for over 20 years. Their passion exposed art house, independent and foreign films to a worldwide audience, and Roger’s accessible reviews provided a roadmap for all those who felt in over their head. For Roger, insight did not require obfuscation, and elitism did not equal good taste. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were not below consideration, for they were and are treasures of cinema alongside Badlands, Nosferatu and Vivre Sa Vie.

These disparate films all met Roger’s strongest writing in The Great Movies, a series that has filled three published books and might furnish a posthumous fourth. Moving past his famous “thumbs up, thumbs down” rating system and the legendary one-liners he hurled at trash like Armageddon, we find Roger to be a critic of great nuance and optimism. In The Great Movies, he took a magnifying glass and a mirror to classics and hidden gems alike. He would scrutinize a scene’s composition and lighting in one paragraph and reflect on themes like death (Gates of Heaven), existence (Persona) and greatness (Amadeus) in the next. Even as he broke down the most confounding films, his words remained personal, brilliant and unpretentious. Look no further than his essays on The Tree of Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey and La Dolce Vita, three favorite films of his that now align with my own. It was his praise that inspired me to see them, think about them, see them again and purchase their posters that now stare at me from the walls of my room.

Then you have his more recent reviews, like his write-up on Synecdoche, New York, which might as well be the most beautiful piece of film criticism ever written (and which I shamelessly ripped off for my Perks of Being a Wallflower review last year). On his blog, he talked politics, love, science, religion, memory — everything, really. These themes carried over to his bustling Facebook and Twitter accounts, platforms not accustomed to Roger’s sincerity and original wit. (A memorable tweet: “To a friend uncertain about moving: Every city you move to already contains friends of a lifetime you have not yet met.”) Staunchly liberal yet disdainful of political correctness, Roger adhered to no rules but his own, which he always admitted were subject to change. His words were not some Holy Truth so much as true — to himself, his feelings and his engaged and unironic worldview. What other public figure won his fame and fortune through honesty, levelheadedness and common sense?

I regret never meeting Roger, a man I knew so well. My mom reminded me over spring break to reach out to Roger and express my gratitude, but after a halfhearted attempt at finding his email address, I abandoned this simple task. What would I even say? Besides, I will graduate in a couple years, and then I can make movies or write about them with Roger as a peer, though certainly not an equal. And, before that, I will find the time to go to his annual Ebertfest, at least, when it doesn’t conflict with school…

So, yeah. This loss cuts deep. Roger ignited my love for the movies. Roger tackled the issues of his time, and all time. Roger inspired the world in his open struggle with cancer. Roger loved Chaz, his wonderful wife. Roger was a presence. It is fitting that he titled his last blog, published two days before his death, “A Leave of Presence.” In it, he announced the return of his cancer, his resignation from day-to-day reviewing duties but also his excitement “to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” I had the bitter fortune of reading it the day before he died, and I left a comment that ended with the note, “I look forward to sharing many more movie-watching years with your prose guiding the way.”

In retrospect, I realize that “years” was pushing it, considering his ailments. Then again, I consider the blog’s last line, the words he might have known he was parting us with: “I’ll see you at the movies.” If he meant what I think he meant, then, Roger, I’ve been seeing you for years.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos