There’s always been Roger Ebert. And when I read that he had died Thursday, that’s what caught in my throat. Not just sadness, but bafflement. I don’t understand. There’s always been Roger Ebert.
This will be the first night in my life I go to bed and he’s not out there thinking about movies. And perhaps it’s an odd description of sadness, but: It’s weird.
By the time I was born, he was already a writer, and by the time I could process the idea of criticism, he already was a columnist and had a TV show with Gene Siskel — then called Sneak Previews — on public television, which I watched with my parents. There was always, always, always Roger Ebert.
As a young teenager — then choosing plans from a rotating carousel of futures having nothing to do with cultural criticism — I owned a bunch of his big, fat, bricklike movie yearbooks, and I broke the spines until they were soft looking up the movies I liked or hated or didn’t understand. Not to see if he got it right, but to see if I got it right. That’s the way critics seem when you first become aware of them, I think: They deliver information about whether a thing is good, and the frailty they necessarily bring to that task escapes you at first, the same way you don’t necessarily think to ask whether your history book is right when you’re 12.
The idea of arguing with him, even in my head, would probably not have occurred to me in the early going. I was so relieved when he loved something I loved, like Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, which was my first favorite nonkids movie when I was 14. I can tell you without looking it up — his site is completely crashed right now anyway, and good for you, Internet! — that he said the leads in it showed normal college-age shyness about sex, and that the kiss in it is more meaningful than most.
These aren’t just film-technique remarks; he’s talking about how a piece of culture does or doesn’t understand people and how they fight and screw up and kiss and get nervous. He was using movies in part as both art and sociology, little stories about how the human heart operates, and I think that’s where he hooked me. And quite honestly, I don’t know whether anyone else would have if he hadn’t been there. Maybe. Maybe not. But those little essays about how a character experiences a critical moment of fear or understanding, those were the ones I thought would make that the best job in the world.
As infallible as I think he was to me in the early going, what made Ebert so indelible as I got older was precisely how personal his relationship to the movies and to his readers obviously was. Yes, he wanted us to see better movies, see more interesting movies, and for heaven’s sake, not see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Make no mistake as his humanity is praised far and wide: He was no soft touch; he was marvelously funny and has a stupendous book called Your Movie Sucks, consisting entirely of gleefully, gloriously terrible reviews (there’s also one called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, which is also great). He had warmth, but he could also cut into a turkey like it was Turbo Chainsaw Thanksgiving.
One of the best things about his memoir was that it reclaimed him as a human from his encroaching reputation as something of a saint; but boy, he was … important. To me, to my friends, to many of the people who came to love movies and culture at the same time I did.
Especially in the last six or eight years of his life, Ebert opened himself wide to talk about cancer, not being able to speak, not eating or drinking, his marriage, his alcoholism, and whatever else he thought might mean something to someone to know. It wasn’t the direction of the thumb that meant so much to people in those years; it was that he loved and cared about film, and writing, and people, and he extravagantly, audaciously loved his wife and firmly believed that your life would be better if YOU, YES YOU, had a rice cooker.
It’s so inadequate — “film critic” is right, but so, so wrong, and so, so not enough. He did a ridiculous number of things, he really did. After he couldn’t speak, he brought to light issues surrounding communications technology, and he set the standard for print and broadcast journalists getting new media (especially Twitter), and he embraced the globalization of cinema by getting “far-flung correspondents” to write for his blog from other countries.
Siskel and Ebert were my role models for how to argue, hard, with smart people you love. He was my best approximation of the truly humane but brutally honest cultural writer. He was so, so funny and he was so, so smart.
And I’m so glad he embraced Twitter, reinventing his voice at the moment he needed it, because it certainly embraced him. For much of the time since his death was announced, I’ve been watching writers I know tweet about how much it meant to them this one time. This one time they met him, talked to him, got an email from him, got a Twitter mention from him. It happened to me once, too — only and exactly once, I got a note in response to something I’d written that was tangentially about him. It was brief and funny, thoughtful and wry, and it meant the world to me. As happened when Nora Ephron died, we are learning that in addition to all the closer relationships he had with writers, he put a lot of feelers out — little ones. Just little ones: I see you. I read that. You, too, are in this now.
The irony is that it all feels so personally sad. It feels so personally, profoundly awful and unfair, and I feel it with the grief nerves, not just the admiration nerves, because people whose books you destroy from overuse as a 16-year-old, you will grieve when they die as if you knew them, whether they are novelists or critics. But still, after all that, I was doing all right until I remembered that he’s not going to write about any more movies. And I’m still not ready for that.
Tuesday, after Ebert announced what he called a “leave of presence” in what are now his last public words, someone tweeted a link to this video of Siskel and Ebert reviewing a Corbin Bernsen stinker called Frozen Assets.
At the very end, he talks about reincarnation and cracks up Siskel saying, “For seeing this movie, I want months and months and months in a beautiful valley with honey and nectar and zephyrlike breezes.” Even if he hadn’t seen Frozen Assets, I’d say: Seems about right.