Roger Ebert: Go gently, my friend


My copy of Roger’s memoir, “Life Itself,” personalized and signed by the big man himself. I never met him in person, but the fact that he was willing to sign these for fans he hadn’t even met spoke volumes.

Note: Some of Roger’s review archive is not appearing online at the moment. I think the amount of people viewing his reviews is messing with the site. I will link to the reviews when they again appear online. 

April 4 will forever be remembered for something more than the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s now the day that Roger Ebert, the prolific and beloved film critic, died at age 70 after a long battle with cancer. Its’ safe to say that I wouldn’t be a writer today if it wasn’t for this man. He’s up there with Bill Watterson, John Steinbeck and Brian Jacques of major influences and reasons why I write.

      I don’t remember when I first really got into movies, but I do remember watching “Siskel and Ebert” on TV even before that. You could say it was that show that got me into movies in the first place. I remember thinking, if I ever made a movie, it would be my ultimate creative goal to get “two thumbs up.”

While Ebert’s TV appearances were a hoot, it was his writing that really engaged me. I’ve never really understood how someone could write so personally about something they themselves did not create. But, Roger somehow managed to make his reviews personal, intimate and raw. Perhaps it was the fact that he never descended into the miasma of intellectualism where so many critics find themselves. He always brought things back to the heart of film: how did it make him feel? “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you,” he once said.

His emotions came through in reviews that could be surprisingly anger or tenderness. Some of my favorite “hateful” reviews include Transformers 2, Battle: Los Angeles and Kick-Ass. As for his positive reviews? Well, any one will do. Every fan of film needs to have a copy of “Great Movies” or Ebert’s wonderful four-star review collection from 1967-2007. One of the great pleasures in life has been seeing Roger’s joy over seeing a movie he loved. His prose never just made me want to see a good movie: it inspired me to create art that could have the same kind of emotional impact that films had on him. One of Roger’s last reviews was his in-depth analysis of Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which is one of the best pieces of film writing I’ve read.

Roger’s personal touch also came through in the way he incorporated his culturally Catholic view of the world into his writing. In this regard (and others), his writing has only gotten stronger since his illness. Roger has written elegantly about science, the universe, faith and death in ways that most likely would have never manifested themselves without his illness.

Regardless, Roger’s writing has been spiritually challenging to me on a personal spiritual level.

“I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved,” he wrote. “I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me,” he continued. “If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve.”

“I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic,” he continued. “I am more content with questions than with answers.” That may not sound like much of an answer, but Roger lived out his views of the world with resolve, writing passionately on topics such as evolution and gun control. I frequently disagreed with his posts, but I always knew that there was a real human, with a real soul behind those words. In an era filled with showy punditry and half-hearted plays for sympathy, Roger wrote from the heart and was always responsive and respectful to those who disagreed with or were offended by his works.

Roger’s last column, published April 2 and accurately titled “A Leave of Presence,” was an eerily poignant and foreshadowing goodbye to an era.

What in the world is a leave of presence?” he wrote. It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” It was the perfect opportunity to say goodbye, but Roger’s presence is far from gone. It will endure, just as the art of cinema will endure.

Roger, the last chapter of your wonderful biography (which you were so kind to sign for me) is titled “Go Gently.” Even though you did not subscribe to the concept of an afterlife, I still pray you will do just that. If you should find yourself in Heaven, I hope all of your favorite movies are there, playing repeatedly on the celestial reel. Thanks for the memories, my friend.