Thumbs Up to a True Legend

Thumbs Up to a True Legend

When I think of my beginnings as a huge movie geek, one of my first major memories is when I began watching At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper during the late summer/early fall of 2002. While I had not always heard of the films they were discussing, I remember that the conversations between the two critics were intelligent yet accessible and peppered with witty references. Thus, I started trusting their opinions and dragged my mom to view limited releases such as Possession (which introduced me to Neil LaBute) and Spirited Away (which introduced me to Hayao Miyazaki).

Sadly, just as my love of Roger Ebert was beginning, the time slot of At the Movies was changed to some time in the middle of the night on Saturday. Thus, I couldn’t watch the show anymore, but I did start reading both new and old Ebert reviews online.[1] I was struck by his unique writing style that was sharp and thoughtful in equal measure, and was urged to check out films that earned his 4/4 rating. I thereby discovered all-time classics such as Nashville and M, as well as overlooked gems like Dark City.

While I wasn’t able to experience At the Movies for a few years, I began to listen to the show as a podcast in late 2005 and resumed hearing spirited debates over films such as Lucky Number Slevin. However, this auditory experience proved short-lived, as a surgery in June 2006 to remove cancerous tissue resulted in the removal of part of Ebert’s jawbone. Thus, conventional eating or breathing for Ebert were no longer possible. At the Movies still went on with Richard Roeper and an endless wheel of guest co-hosts. While Roeper is an intelligent critic and an engaging personality, the show without Ebert lost its appeal for me, and I stopped listening to the podcast about a month after that.

Luckily, Ebert resumed writing in 2007, and at a more prolific pace than ever before. It was at this point that I learned about Ebert’s tremendous personality. While many other critics and filmmakers held him in incredibly high esteem, I never realized how selfless Ebert was until others pointed this out after he became ill. He had a habit of mentoring new critics and responding to letters and emails. Ebert often gave pull-quotes and introductions to film-related books for no charge, and was known for cracking jokes and talking with younger writers before critics’ screenings in Chicago. Lastly, he is the only film critic who has ever started his own film festival. This amount of accessibility rarely exists from those at top of their field, and should be commended.

While I have been a big fan of Ebert’s for many years, there is much about him and his work that I have yet to explore. I have not read many of his longer essays or his 2010 memoir, Life Itself—a supposedly powerful account of his professional and personal life. Less surprisingly, I also have neglected to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the most famous of several soft-core comedies that Ebert wrote in the early 1970’s. However, I plan to do all of these things soon, since Ebert was a singular talent who seemed to have a great outlook on life. His impact on developing my passion for cinema and his influence on contemporary film and journalism are immeasurable. Even if film criticism on television is dead and individual critics are becoming less important than Tomatometers, the role of talented writers like Ebert should not be reduced. I urge you to go back and read Ebert’s work, and to start following writers like Matt Singer on Criticwire/Screen Crush and Nathan Rabin at the A.V. Club. Their writing is intelligent and often hilarious, and their analyses of both familiar and unfamiliar pop-culture artifacts tends to be on-point. Reading their work is a great tribute to ensuring the legacy of Ebert, who birthed many cinephiles and bloggers through his excellent prose, tremendous wit, and wonderful spirit.

[1] I had few friends in middle school. Thus, I had free time for obsessive projects such as reading thirty-plus years of reviews by a single critic.

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