not in our stars, but in ourselves
Roger Ebert just died, and it’s making me much sadder than I thought it would. There’s a lovely tribute to him here, so I’d recommend reading that, but my own small contribution to the choir:
Back when I was a very young teenager, and just beginning to discover the importance of movies, I would often devour whatever collections of reviews I could find at the library. It was a strange exercise, since I’d hardly heard of most of the films being reviewed, but even then I had some sort of inkling that the best I could hope to accomplish in my life was to try to capture in words the feeling of watching all those flickering lights and shadows. It’s the closest thing to a calling I’ve ever heard or felt, whatever the right verb should be, and it began early.
Ebert’s writing stood out to me, for many reasons. I’d tried to read Pauline Kael, and found her to be too opaque; she was obviously very clever, but too clever for my thirteen-year-old self to want to bother trying to understand. I dismissed Leonard Maltin as a simpleton immediately – something I still do. But Ebert struck me. He wasn’t writing about himself, at least not directly or intentionally. I mean, you’re always writing about yourself when you write, because you’re the one writing. Obviously. But he was writing, first and foremost, about the film, about the experience of the film, about the little universe the film created, about the galaxies of ideas within that film’s universe. He wrote accessibly, engagingly, colorfully. He didn’t worry himself with trying to appear serious. If he thought a dumb, frat-boy comedy was hilarious, he would admit it without shame. If he thought a pandering, Oscar-bait drama was bullshit, he would eviscerate it.
I would read his reviews, reviews of films I hadn’t seen or even heard of. I would read about movies featuring actors I had a crush on, and grumble if he gave the movie a bad review. (I still do that. Heaven help you if you say a cross word about Christoph Waltz, film reviewers of the world.) Since I’m not a Chicago native, I wasn’t exposed to his writing on a daily or weekly basis; nor did I go out of my way to watch him on TV; but I kept him enshrined in my mind as one of the good ones, one of the reviewers who really and truly loved film. He didn’t get carried away with his own influential stature, or vanity, or cleverness, or anything like that. He just wanted to write about movies. And he did it better than most.
So long, Roger. Sleep well.