Roger Ebert taught me how to read. I can’t explain why, but for some reason reading was always a burden to me growing up. It was like getting my hair cut, or going to the dentist; it was nothing more than an unfortunate necessity. I was always into movies though.
When things got confusing for me in high school, I frequently looked for ways to escape. I stumbled onto Roger Ebert’s website, and stumbled into a perfect addiction. I frequented the Internet Movie Database regularly (I was/am a regular to the “trivia” page), and Ebert’s reviews were always at the top of the “External Reviews” section. Once I started reading his stuff, I couldn’t stop. Reading movie reviews became a part of my intellectual development, and I have Ebert to thank for that.
I think it was his wit that got to me initially. He was a writer first, film critic second. He always felt reasonable. As I became more obsessed with film criticism, I began to read the Oregonian every Friday, catching as many of Eugene Levy’s reviews as I could. Levy was good, but he seemed to have a disdain for movies that had broad appeal – a common curse of criticism. Ebert never fell into that trap. He was more than willing to recognize that in its own way, Raiders of the Lost Ark was just as essential viewing as any Scorsese picture (he called Raiders “an out-0f-body experience”). I loved movies, and I could see that above all else Ebert was just a fan like me.
Even though I remember watching Siskel & Ebert with my dad as a kid, I feel like I came to know him more as a writer than as a television personality. Having said that, part of my high school obsession with film criticism was expressed by my constant watching of “At the Movies” episodes on movies.com. My friends and I would sit for hours discussing movies. I have a hard time believing that wasn’t the direct result of my infatuation with watching Ebert battle it out with Roeper (who was a nice guy, but definitely no Siskel).
Ebert’s criticism led me to many great movies. I never would have watched a David Gordon Green film had it not been for Ebert’s confidant recommendation. He called him a “true poet of the cinema”. How could I possibly resist?
He had a prose that struck me deep. He saw movies as something profound and powerful, which inspired my young mind to think in ways my schooling was failing to encourage. Even after entering college, Ebert remained one of my favorite writers. I still have his 1990 Movie Home Companion that I inadvertently stole from my aunt. Two reviews in that compilation still stick out in my mind: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I never did see The Last Temptation of Christ, but I remember the powerful awe his review inspired in my young religious mind. “I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully.” he wrote, “The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.” I think I owe it to him to watch this one.
Bang the Drum Slowly, on the other hand, I have seen. I watched it on his recommendation. “In its mixture of fatalism, roughness, tenderness, and bleak humor, indeed, it seems to know more about the ways we humans handle death than a movie like Love Story ever guessed.” He was right. What a beautiful movie.
It’s important to note, however, that I don’t agree with all of his reviews. I remember yelling at my computer screen the first time I read his review of Dead Poets Society, one of my personal favorites. Its a movie about what it feels like to be young, wide eyed and bored. What it feels like to have someone come into your life and give you things you didn’t know were missing. Above all, however, its about the stark strangling realities of life. Its unfairness, its heartbreak. Ebert simply didn’t see that. “Peter Weir’s The Dead Poets Society is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something – doing your own thing, I think.” And that was that. He missed the whole point, and slapped it with two stars (the same rating as Batman & Robin I might add).
His greatest review came just a few years ago. His blog post about Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life is one I go back to often. Every time I read it I am reminded of the profound potential of the cinema. I miss him already.