It’s probably pretty safe to say that Roger Ebert, by a wide margin, has been the most influential figure on my writing. It’s possible, although far from certain, that had I not read Ebert as a teen, I might never have thought to write one review, let alone nearly 1,000. (Of course, that’s pure conjecture. If you pull a thread on one’s life, there’s no telling to what degree it might unravel, but maybe I’d have found another way in the same direction.)
But that’s the thing about Ebert: He was so prolific, so observant and wise, so widely read and well respected — so utterly the gold standard of all critics — that probably every writer in the genre of criticism saw him as the model to aspire to.
After learning yesterday of his death at age 70 after a long battle with cancer and in since reading numerous obituaries, tributes, and comments from those he worked with or influenced, you realize just how widely and uniformly respected the man was by so many of his peers, colleagues, and readers. And yet despite his status and the fame it brought him, you would never for one second, think of him in those terms when you read him. He never spoke down to his readers, but he never dumbed anything down either; his writing style was intelligent but accessible — for the gamut of people who were novices, students, or experts on film. It is a balance some critics either cannot or willfully refuse to find.
So here is just this one reader’s account, since it’s the only unique one I can offer.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint when I first started reading Ebert, because it seems now like I’ve always been reading him. It was probably in the late 1980s or early ’90s, while in my early to mid-teens. My dad had a copy of Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion 1987 Edition that I found on the bookshelf. I started reading reviews of movies I’d seen and found the whole idea of reviewing a movie on its merits fascinating. I later bought more editions of Ebert’s books of movie reviews.
I suppose a seed had been planted. From there, my interest in journalism in general and movie reviews in particular continued to build steam, through high school and college. I joined the high school newspaper staff my senior year. That was great fun and some great memories. I knew I had found something I would be doing for a while.
During my first week on campus my freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — on Quad Day, the annual first-week marketing blitz for campus organizations — I picked up a flyer for the Daily Illini, where I would end up working for the next four years. Ebert was the most famous of all Daily Illini alumni (with perhaps Hugh Hefner ranking second); he was editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper in his college days. The orange recruiting flyer said: “Roger Ebert did it. So can you.” I’m about 99 percent sure I still have that flyer in a box somewhere.
I worked in editorial production for the first couple years at the Daily Illini, which was probably a strategic mistake since all the real glory was in the newsroom with the reporters and editors. I remember my sophomore year how Ebert visited the Daily Illini and took the newsroom editors to dinner. I unfortunately was not part of that group yet, so I didn’t even see him. I just heard about it later from my newsroom editor friends. I chalked it up to missed opportunities.
I eventually did meet Ebert in 1999, during a panel discussion at his inaugural Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana (which at the time was called Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival). I asked a question during the panel, and when it ended, I loomed after long enough to walk out with him and chat for a quick minute. I told him I was a big fan of his work and how he influenced me as a writer, and I got a quick photo with him. He was gracious and humble about it. I’m sure he got that sort of thing constantly from fans, but he didn’t make it seem like a burden.
Through the years, Ebert would always be there with new reviews, every week, without fail, all available on the Chicago Sun-Times website and later the invaluable RogerEbert.com. I’ve probably read close to 90 percent of what he’s written the past 17 years. His reviews have been a cornerstone of my reading habits for so long that I can’t imagine now what it will be like not to have those weekly insights about the movies. Even when I stopped regularly going to movies, I could keep up through his reviews.
Ebert’s health problems over the past decade are well documented, in news stories as well as his own blog entries. What I’d like to talk about instead is his engagement in social media in recent years, after he could no longer speak in person and took even more greatly to the Internet (which he never avoided, even in its early days) and became even more actively engaged with his audience. Ebert welcomed technology in a way not all old-school journalists did. His blog was terrific, covering topics ranging from politics to the very personal. His use of Facebook and Twitter are nothing short of the very model of what users of those networks can and should, in my opinion, strive for. He produced 21st-century content for a general audience delivered perfectly appropriately via the platforms for which they were designed. All of this was apart from his regular writing duties.
Just two days ago, Ebert posted a blog entry titled “A Leave of Presence,” in which he announced that his cancer had returned (though he buried the lead and instead took a more optimistic tack) and that he would have to cut back on his reviewing duties. But that post also mentioned several new projects in the works, including his new Ebert Digital organization, as well as a relaunch of RogerEbert.com, scheduled for April 9. He mentioned that the site would, moving forward, include several writers, and in a way, it almost seemed as if he was handing over the keys to the castle for the eventuality that he would no longer be manning it (which had already largely been the case for the past few months since his hip injury).
But he also said he was not going away, just stepping back. I was looking forward to seeing what these projects would bring, and perhaps they will still continue in one form or another even without Ebert at the helm. But it’s really hard to fathom that just two days after that announcement, Roger Ebert is now gone. Death has a viciously cruel way of instantly rendering all things that were pending as instead irrevocably moot.
Ebert’s passing is a huge loss for readers and critics everywhere, and the void will be keenly felt. But others will follow in his footsteps. Perhaps Ebert’s greatest legacy, in addition to the collective body of his work as a film critic for 46 years, an author, and a blogger, is that he pioneered a mainstream form of thoughtful, knowledgeable, but widely accessible criticism (along with Gene Siskel) that has in turn given rise to the current era of online criticism that thrives today more than ever. To film criticism, Ebert brought the great assets of his knowledge, wisdom, wit, humanity, and work ethic. How he did it is what critics everywhere — even amateurs like me who only write about one niche corner of the universe and only do it part-time — saw as the way it should be done.
I got an email once from a reader some years back, who generously told me I was like “the Roger Ebert of Star Trek reviews.” I would never presume to claim such a lofty label. But I will say that I can think of no higher compliment to have been paid.