Roger Ebert is dead.
A huge part of me has accepted the news and is happy that Ebert’s suffering is finished forever and the legacy he left behind will sustain his memory in the minds of his most ardent followers and many more still to discover his unique body of work for generations to come. But in my heart I still can’t believe it has happened.
“Who are Siskel and Ebert?,” I wondered as a child after seeing a television spot for an upcoming movie, the name of which escapes me now, “and why do they always say ‘Two Thumbs Up’?” There was a time when I needed no critical encouragement to see a movie that had already captured my youthful imagination. If I wanted to see Back to the Future Part II or Dick Tracy I was going to pester my parents until they either sent me to my room or caved under the pressure to take me to see those films, regardless of what the critics happened to think of them. In those days the only critics I trusted were my friends and classmates at school; that’s usually where the best word of mouth could be spread amongst us kids.
I had seen a few episodes of Siskel & Ebert At the Movies, usually in brief increments, in my youth but cared little for them. Back then I had not yet developed the healthy interest in cinema that I have today. Movies were a very moderate part of my life, as they are now in a sense, because there was so much else going on that I had precious little time for them. Until my late grandmother Betty first got cable television and HBO with it, the only times I would get to see movies were during the sporadic occasions when my family would check out the latest popular family feature or on the weekends when my mother would take my brother, sister, and me to our neighborhood video store and rent a few titles along with one of those old school top-loader VCRs.
[Film critic Roger Ebert at the 15th Annual IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, CA on March 25, 2000: Image courtesy of Paul Smith for Featureflash/Shutterstock.com]
In January 1989, my mother told us one evening that we would have to move from the neighborhood where we had lived for the past two years and where I had the most friends ever at that point in my life. Because my father was perpetually out of work and my mother couldn’t afford to pay our rent and bills and everything else on her income alone, we were forced to pack up and move one county over in with my grandmother Betty.
On the Monday after we moved I started at my new school. It was the middle of my fourth grade year. Up until then I never once had a problem making friends. Other kids seemed to like me because I was nice and outgoing, but the kids at my new school took an instant dislike to me. I came from a lower income family basically squatting with a close relative while my new classmates all had parents with comfy, well-paying jobs and all the cool new toys and video games they wanted. So what exactly did they need me for? I had nothing to offer them but my unconditional friendship and not much more. Needless to say, I was not a popular child.
With no one to call friend for the first time in my life, I started to become withdrawn and shy. Books and movies became my new friends. They could do more for my growing mind than any single human being in my life. I just needed guides to point the way to the best there ever was. That’s where Roger Ebert finally entered my world proper.
Dumbarton Public Library held many mysteries for me. It was a few blocks away from my grandmother’s house so on days when the weather was decent I could walk there when my parents didn’t want to take me. Walking that lengthy distance (for an 11-year-old anyway) didn’t faze me one bit. I had nothing else better to do. Kids at school were taking their hatred of me to levels that now involved threatening to show up at my house and beat the holy hell out of me. My teacher and principal were no help in that department; they were more likely to blame me for being so nice and approachable in the first place.
Plus, I lived in a house with two warring married couples. My grandparents slept in separate bedrooms, something I found odd at the time because I understood not how complicated marriage could be. Then there was my own parents, fighting and splitting up and getting back together and rinsing and repeating since long before I, the oldest of my mother’s three children, was ever conceived much less yanked sticky and crying from her womb.
Life was hell no matter where I went it seemed. The library was my only sanctuary from this daily dose of soul-crushing madness. It brought me more inner peace, joy, and strength than the baptist church next door where my family attended every week and I was baptized on Easter Sunday 1990. For the first two years I went to Dumbarton I never ventured beyond the kids’ section. At my age there was plenty of good books there to keep me interested, but once I had read every worthwhile selection in that area of the building it was high time for me to leave its nurturing safety and journey to the adult section of the library. That’s where the really good books were kept, I soon learned for myself.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins leaving the Shire for the first time to go off on an adventure that will forever change his life, or Dorothy Gale being swept away by that tornado to the magical land of Oz, somewhere just over that rainbow. The adult section was packed to the gill with vast columns containing shelves lined with books of all subjects that came in covers both hard and soft, and those shelves looked to my young self like great towers reaching up to the sky. The very sight blew my adolescent mind, but the best was yet to come.
Since moving in with my grandmother I had taken an interest in watching countless hours of movies on HBO. It was the only movie channel she had in her cable package, but as far I was concerned then it was the only one we needed. I was so hooked into it that most mornings I would wake at least an hour earlier than the rest of my family – especially my grandparents, the earliest risers of them all – in order to catch the tail end of HBO’s late night movie line-up. To a kid nowhere near the age to have his own video store membership card or see R-rated movies on the big screen, without the presence of an adult this was the most forbidden fruit and it tasted juicy and delicious.
The summers were always the best. The year I began to take an active interest in the public library was the same year I first saw James Cameron’s The Abyss. It was on nearly every day during those broiling hot months when I was off from school. My grandmother grew tired of my incessant movie watching and would tell me to go outside and play with the other kids, or else. By then it didn’t matter. I was hooked into cinema and wanted to learn everything there was to know about movies and how they were made. The thirst had taken hold.
Back to the library. My first inclination once I made my inaugural voyage to the adult area was to head straight for the books about film. There was a small section devoted to arts and entertainment nestled next to a larger section with books about a subject I had zero interest in: sports. The covers of these books were classy and sparsely designed. Very few of them called attention to themselves. The colors were sleek silvers and blacks, dark bluish hues, with photos both full color and black & white.
One particular book caught my attention because I immediately the name of the author. It was an early edition of Roger Ebert’s long-running Movie Home Companion series. If memory serves correctly the first Companion, a compilation of Ebert’s print movie reviews with modifications made for the book edition to reflect the rising trend in VCR and laserdisc player ownership, was published in 1985. I had actually found that edition in a Goodwill store only just a few years ago.
Still burbling with anticipation over the amazing discoveries I was making right then I cracked open the book and began to read. Without the time to read it cover-to-cover I flipped through it until I came across reviews that caught my eye. Wait a minute, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? What the hell is I Spit On Your Grave? Man, Ebert really had it in for that movie. At the time in my life I had also developed a fascination with horror films so that dovetailed nicely with my burgeoning interest in film appreciation and study. What really had taken me by surprise while reading the Companion was the depth and passion with which Ebert wrote his reviews. Until that time I had only read movie reviews by the critic in my local paper – and compared to Ebert he seemed like a complete amateur – and capsule reviews of films that appeared in a giant softcover volume given out free to anyone who signed up for a membership with a local video store called Video World.
Ebert’s reviews influenced my own writing about film more than any other writer I have ever read. He was smart, warm-hearted, and could occasionally employ a lacerating wit when he wrote about a movie he particularly despised. Proving that there was no such thing as bad press, when Ebert wrote about a bad movie he did so in such a way that sometimes it made me want to see the movie for myself. That’s how I ended up watching the likes of Caligula and the aforementioned I Spit On Your Grave, and though those films weren’t exactly the finest in cinema, they were hardly as awful as he made them out to be. But I couldn’t expect to always agree with the guy, and that was the point, wasn’t it? To watch the movies myself and formulate my own opinions. I still think to this day that he pretty much missed the point of Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but other than that Ebert’s tastes in film and mine are practically identical. He also taught me that there was more to a movie than what was on the surface. I learned how to create my own interpretations of what certain films were about and to heighten my appreciation of them even more.
Ebert was certainly no movie snob, even as he and Siskel often took their hatred of slasher movies a few steps over the line. If Ebert disliked a film it was for a damn good reason and it often got me to reevaluate or even revise my own opinions of certain films by watching them again with renewed perspective. The fact that he made an underrated and poorly marketed sci-fi drama called Dark City his best film of 1998 and even recorded a commentary track for its DVD release – one of only a few he ever did – made Ebert more than an influence. At that moment he became one of my personal heroes, and that’s when I started writing about movies myself. Up until then I was writing mostly sophomoric fiction, stuff that I’m glad was lost to the ages, but as I began to put to paper and later word processor my own detailed opinions about movies I had seen, I had come to the realization that all those years spent reading Ebert’s reviews had impacted me greatly. From then on whenever I wrote, and it wasn’t always about movies, I had learned from the writings of Roger Ebert to put everything that was in my very being – intellect, sense of humor, heart and soul – into my own writing so that it became an expression of who I was.
[Roger Ebert at the 61st Annual DGA Awards. Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, Los Angeles, CA. 01-31-09; image courtesy of Shutterstock.com]
When I joined MySpace in 2007 I started posting reviews on my blog. That lead to my joining the spectacular staff of Geeks of Doom the following year. I have been writing reviews of movies, music, and books ever since and though I cannot always write as much as many of my peers, when I am able I do the best work that I possibly can. And I also apply another lesson I took away from Ebert’s writing: to find the hidden treasures in the worst of cinematic garbage and to hold those virtues in the highest of regards. I may never have met the man, but without having had the work of Roger Ebert in my life I would not today be doing that which I love most in the world, and that is writing. Truly one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever have given me.
Thanks Roger, for everything. See you at the movies.
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