On the first anniversary of Roger Ebert's death, the website that bears his name has gathered a collection of essays on his influence. Here, site contributors Glenn Kenny, Susan Wlosczyna, Christy Lemire, Odie Henderson and others pay tribute in writing; here, Nell Minow, Ali Arikan, Brian Tallerico and Sam Fragoso do it with images. But two take an especially personal tack.
In "My Year Without Roger," Ebert's widow, Chaz, reflects on the year since his "transition," including the emotional premiere of Steve James' documentary, "Life Itself," at Sundance. And Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor of RogerEbert.com, shares "the most important thing Roger taught me." It came, he explains, via an unsolicited email that arrived at a particularly desperate time in his life:
At that point, sometime in fall of 2010, I'd been a widowed single parent for four-and-a-half years. I was thinking of giving up on journalism and filmmaking both. The economy had cratered two years earlier and showed no signs of recovery. Journalism was hit hard. I hadn't held a full-time media job since 2006. Decently compensated writing and film editing gigs were so rare that I'd begun looking into other lines of work, applying for jobs as a limo driver, a supermarket checker, an associate media professor, and a counselor for at-risk youth. I'd also inquired about becoming an apprentice plumber, because I knew that even if journalism jobs dried up there would always be work for people who knew how to unclog pipes.
And then Seitz got en email from Ebert, reading simply "You amaze me with your energy and your love of what you do." And that, he says, helped turn things around.
One of the most important things critics do is to share their enthusiasms, to plant a flag, however small, and say "This work matters to me." Putting things you've made out into the world is a nerve-wracking endeavor, and knowing that someone else not only hears what you've said but has taken the time to sit down and try and figure out why and how they respond to it can be the difference between an artist carrying on and them giving up hope.
That goes for critics as well as artists, especially in a time when the publications that once employed them consistently send the message that their work doesn't matter, or that it's worth only a fraction of what it was. So while I'm always moved by people who proclaim how much Ebert's writing meant to them, it bothers me when people talk as if criticism died with him. There will, of course, never be another Roger Ebert. But in life, he was passionate about promoting voices other than his own, and he took steps before his death to ensure his website would carry on that work. So as you mourn Ebert today, consider those who've followed in his footsteps, or better yet charted their own, equally singular courses. Reach out to them to the way he did to Matt Zoller Seitz, and help keep the art he devoted his life to practicing and promoting alive.