A Small Timer’s Thoughts on Roger Ebert

I’m spending my Saturday night watching a 30 for 30 about Wayne Gretzky. 30 for 30 is a series of 30 documentaries spanning a wide range of sports-related topics–single athletes, the OJ trial, the pro athlete’s tendency to overspend, whether or not you know Bo Jackson, et cetera, et cetera. I’ve been very fond of documentaries lately, particularly about things of which I have little to no foreknowledge, ala sports, the construction of the largest single-family home in America, and The Shining. (I watched The Queen of Versailles and Room 237 and you should, too, as both are solid.) It’s a reminder of how long I’ve enjoyed documentaries, which is a reminder of how long I’ve loved movies, which is an inevitable reminder, this particular week, that I’ve never admired another critic the way I admire Roger Ebert.

When I was 14, I took a career aptitude test instructing me to pick from a handful of future ambitions formatted as a list. Film critic was one of them. I hadn’t thought too specifically about the life ahead of me then. (Remember, I was 14.) I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I knew that didn’t mean journaling or whatever archaic form of fanfiction I was penning. So film critic it was, and naturally, the guy I turned to for inspiration was Ebert.

Even as I transitioned from freelance entertainment writer to full time advertising copywriter, redirecting my interest in pop culture such that it was purely tangential, I continued to love reading his reviews and his blog and his tweets. The man was a master of social media, still sending off reviews every Friday while firing off 140-character treatises and wordier, more thought-provoking essays.

And all the while, he was sick. He was upfront about his sickness, rarely making public appearances but being completely transparent when he did, clarifying that, while he couldn’t speak anymore, he was doing everything he could to express himself. I remember watching a segment about him and the Scottish audio software that was cobbling together a perfect mimicry of Ebert’s inflection and vocabulary. You could hear him without him every opening his mouth, and it was a truly beautiful thing. He was embracing technology in a whole new way, and he was showing just how strong both he and his wife Chaz were through all the horror of illness.

Days before his death, Ebert announced he’d be taking a step back from criticism, for which no one could fault him; he was in his late seventies and somehow still at the top of his writing game, so he deserved some time to relax. And on Thursday, the news that Ebert died broke, and it felt as though everyone in my social media microcosm was exactly where I was emotionally. We were devastated. We were crying at our desks (or, in my case, on our couches) at work without shame. And we were grateful that we’d had the privilege of living in a world with such a phenomenal critic for so long.

What strikes me about this death is the utter lack of disrespect across social media. It usually doesn’t take long to get to the snark, but there’s none of that here, because Ebert was too kind-hearted, too open to new ideas, too willing to hear everyone’s opinion as he expressed his own. Even as he eviscerated the filmography of Rob Schneider and gleefully tore Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny to shreds and somehow didn’t appreciate the greatness of Blue Velvet, he was so sincere about the craft of film, the arts of acting and directing that you couldn’t help listening and you couldn’t stop respecting him, regardless of whether you agreed with his opinions.

I’ll never forgot how hard my husband and I laughed over Your Movie Sucks, or how much we enjoyed watching At the Movies on Saturday afternoons, or how much that feature story about Ebert in Rolling Stone made me cry. I’ll still pull out The Great Movies on occasion, and buy other compilations, because I can’t get enough of the man’s attitude and words. In his own way, Roger Ebert was a truly heroic man. He will be missed, honored, and remembered.

See you at the movies.

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