Legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert stepped away from his perch but two days ago. Calling it a “leave of presence,” he wrote that he was taking time away from the usual to work on a number of projects, and also noted a recurrence of the cancer that he had already fought off once (which silenced his voice in speech, but certainly not in print). It was as if it was the job that was keeping him here, the work at hand. And so today comes the news: Roger Ebert is dead.
There will be countless appreciations today, plenty of them here at HitFix. And you can bet they will, each of them, be full of unique insights and takeaways from the critic’s life and times. He had such an invaluable impact on so many in this world of film commentary and criticism that the words will come like a landslide. And that very fact will reveal so much of his legacy.
For my part, like so many, I discovered Ebert as a youth via his “Siskel & Ebert” television program. It would air very late on Sunday nights and it was the first real moment I can recall listening to someone speak about movies from a unique place of passion. He would break down why a film was great or wasn’t. He would get into heated, spirited discussion with his co-host, the late Gene Siskel, when there were disagreements.
On the surface, the bickering was entertainment alone. But underneath it was something meaningful that dug in and stayed with me, and, I’m sure, plenty of you as well. It was something about the power of a movie to get under your skin. As a young boy happening upon a film review show, that was formative. It became part of the fabric of movies, even as I went about seeing them superficially until finally sparking to them as something more a bit later in life.
So it’s going to be generational. People my age, that was their experience with Ebert. But while that kind of impact would be more than lasting for just about anyone else, Ebert’s legend will live on all the more because he — not reinvented, but reinvigorated himself in the wake of the cancer scare that took his actual voice away. He found new life online, blogging ferociously, amassing a following via social media that reached a whole new generation, a generation that has surely been touched by the man’s passion in new yet similar ways as people of mine were.
A number of my colleagues met Ebert, worked with him, some even appearing on his show after Siskel passed away. My first personal experience with him was kind of an unfortunate one: It was a dispute. I linked to and embedded a YouTube clip of him “talking” (via his computerized voice) with “Up in the Air” director Jason Reitman and he took umbrage with the fact that I did that rather than just link. While my instinct normally would have been to get riled, respect took hold and I simply assumed he wasn’t aware it was fair game, noted as much, and said I would remove it. He wrote back immediately after squaring that with his editor, apologizing for his haste. Knowing it clearly bothered him nevertheless, I said I would take it down anyway, and he begged me to leave it. So I did.
We had a few pleasant exchanges about this and that after that. He liked my piece on “A Trip to the Moon” and George Méliès. But I don’t want to bog this down with something about me and I’m certainly in no position to say I knew the man. But I will say I wish I did. I knew his passion, though, and that’s perhaps all that counts. That’s his mark. And while “the balcony” may now be closed forever, the spark Roger brought lit a fire that will never die.
Thumbs up, Roger. You mattered. You matter.