I just found out that Roger Ebert died. It struck me more than I thought it would. I’m not sure how I felt about that funny-looking old guy with his glasses and tweed jackets. But I will say this, like it or not, he had an impact on my life. Roger Ebert, along with his old partner-in-crime and reviews Gene Siskel, were the first ones who opened my eyes to the idea that you could have an opinion about a story.
When I was a kid, bored to tears on rainy Sunday afternoons, I would turn the dial to flip through all five channels on our giant old TV. If clips of movies – bite-sized nuggets of films I would never be allowed to see – happened to be on, I would stop to watch. I have always loved trailers and snippets of movies, and the first time I ever accidentally stumbled across one that cut to two middle-aged guys sitting in a simple and adequately-lit studio who then proceeded to talk about what they saw, I was mesmerized.
It was a whole new concept to me that you could have an opinion about a story that someone was telling. If you liked the film, that was one thing. But if you didn’t like it, wasn’t it best to stay quiet? Not according to Siskel and Ebert. I watched in wonder as these two went at it, praising what they loved and tearing to shreds what they didn’t.
Of course, the most fascinating moments were when they disagreed. Those where the moments when I learned the most. It wasn’t just “That was terrible” or “This is sure to become a modern classic”. When Siskel and Ebert disagreed, plots were analyzed, performances were examined, and the audience was educated.
Even back in those dim days I was a writer, although I didn’t know it yet. It made a huge impression on me to see that if you did something wrong with your storytelling, someone older and wiser might catch it. I paid attention to these two stuffy guys. On some level I thought they were big meanies for pointing out plot holes and belittling oversimplified concepts. They redeemed themselves a bit when they gushed about the richness of the cinematography (I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who taught me what the word cinematography meant) and the depth of emotion that certain actors were able to portray. I listened. I learned.
When Gene Siskel died in 1999 I felt a huge hole on Roger Ebert’s behalf. I remember feeling it far more than I thought was reasonable or sensible. But in my mind Siskel and Ebert were a package deal. They were the first bro-mance I was really aware of. I have no idea if they got along in real life or not, but in my imagination they were BFFs 4-ever! It was wrenching to think that one chair in that simple studio would be left empty forever.
Of course, life went on, Roger Ebert paired with someone else, and many more movies were criticized and praised. But for me – and I’m sure for many others – it wasn’t the same.
It was also jolting to me when Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer and had to have so much of his face removed. Once again, the icon of my childhood became unrecognizable, only this time in a physical way instead of an emotional one. But there is one picture of Ebert that was taken after his surgery that always stuck with me. In it he is holding up his hands in front of his face the way a director frames a scene while filming. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t realize anything was wrong.
That’s the Roger Ebert I will remember. He’s a man framing the world in a critical lens, a lens that made me aware that whatever I write, someone will have an opinion about it. He was as intelligent as they come, making cogent arguments out of art. But at the end of the day, he was those eyes, that soul, unchanging.
Yesterday we lost a part of him, but like all icons, he lives on. And it makes me smile to think of him and his BFF Gene meeting up again in the great beyond to watch some heavenly movies. And I’m sure they’ll have as much to say about those divine creations as they did about the wonders produced here on earth.