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Speaking for the assembly: the genius of Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

by Matt Zoller Seitz
April 5, 2013 1:32 PM
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Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

No one was better at describing the emotional experience of watching a film than Roger Ebert. Few were better at describing the emotional experience of life.  Roger knew the two experiences were one and the same. That was his genius.


In his appreciation of Roger, critic Jim Emerson warned himself and others against writing one of “those ‘In Memoriam’ pieces in which the writers overstate their closeness to the deceased.” I’ll try not to make do that here, but it will not be easy. Roger was the Giving Tree of film critics, and he was extraordinarily generous to me. Over the years he brough me out to EbertFest, published my video essays, and linked to my blogs The House Next Door and Press Play. We emailed each other almost every day, to alert each other to videos we liked or young critics we thought that the other should know about. He was a mentor as well as a friend. Amazingly, this experience was not unusual. To know Roger was to feel uniquely understood and appreciated. He had a rare gift of intimacy that turned strangers into friends – not just fellow critics, but readers and viewers.

How did he do it? Through a combination of eloquence, love and commitment. Roger could punch his weight with any film historian or theorist – when he still had a speaking voice, he could spend days analyzing beloved films shot-by-shot – but that wasn’t where his passions lay. Roger was an enthusiast, a standard-bearer and a talent scout. He lived for the new, the great, the wonderful. He saw with his heart. 

Ebert Pulitzer

“What I believe,” he once wrote, “is that all people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: curious and teachable.” He was describing himself, of course, as all critics ultimately do. All of his writing was part of an ongoing journey of self-discovery, whether it took the form of a blog entry about his cancer treatment or his feelings of disfigurement after having his jaw removed or his battles with alcohol, or a 700-word pan of some new comedy or action picture. One of his greatest late-period reviews, of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, was as much about his struggle to accept and embrace mortality as it was about the film. 

"The film's portrait of everyday life, inspired by Malick's memories of his hometown of Waco, Texas, is bounded by two immensities, one of space and time, and the other of spirituality," Roger wrote. "The Tree of Life has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us. We were created in the Big Bang and over untold millions of years, molecules formed themselves into, well, you and me ... And what comes after? In whispered words near the beginning, 'nature' and 'grace' are heard. We have seen nature as it gives and takes away; one of the family's boys dies. We also see how it works with time, as Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) grows into a middle-aged man (Sean Penn). And what then? The film's coda provides a vision of an afterlife, a desolate landscape on which quiet people solemnly recognize and greet one another, and all is understood in the fullness of time."

There were so many moments like that in Roger's writing -- moments when the facade of detachment, which in most cases never existed anyway, falls away, and we're looking into a man's soul. 

"There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not," he writes, in the opening paragraph of his review of Billy Wilder's The Apartment. The film, he says, "is so affecting partly because of that buried reason: It takes place on the shortest days of the year, when dusk falls swiftly and the streets are cold, when after the office party some people go home to their families and others go home to apartments where they haven't even bothered to put up a tree. On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn't there anymore."

"The consul drinks," Roger writes in the opening paragraph of his Under the Volcano review. "He has been drinking for so many years that he has arrived at that peculiar stage in alcoholism where he no longer drinks to get high or to get drunk. He drinks simply to hold himself together and continue to function."

"The camera watches Elliott moving around," Roger writes in a piece about revisiting one of his favorite films, E.T., with his granddaughters. "And Raven, that's when you asked me, 'Is this E.T.'s vision?' And I said, yes, we were seeing everything now from E.T.'s point of view. And I thought you'd asked a very good question, because most kids your age wouldn't have noticed that the camera had a point of view--that we were seeing everything from low to the ground, as a short little creature would view it, and experiencing what he (or she) would see after wandering out of the woods on a strange planet. While we were watching, I realized how right you were to ask that question. The whole movie is based on what moviemakers call 'point of view.' Almost every single important shot is seen either as E.T. would see it, or as Elliott would see it. And things are understood as they would understand them." 

The fusion of inner- and outer-directedness seen in these pieces, and in hundreds more spread out over forty-plus years, is rare and striking.  It alone can mean the difference between forgetting and remembering a writer’s words. 

We remember Roger. We remember Roger’s words. They were one and the same.

Roger lived to introduce us to new films, new faces, new ways of thinking and seeing. When he got excited – as he did about Spike Lee, Steve James, Zhang Yimou, Jane Campion, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh and all the other filmmakers he helped put on the map – his words had an evangelical fervor; when he turned melancholy or introspective, they had a Talmudic wisdom. At its most impassioned, Roger’s writing (and his spirited declarations on the old TV shows) reminded me of my favorite admonition from Corinthians, that “in the assembly”  -- i.e. the church -- “I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in another language.”  Roger spoke for the assembly, in simple but eloquent language. He described films, filmmakers and even whole film movements in punchy sentences and colloquial phrases and controlled bursts of lyricism that stimulated discussion rather than shutting it down. “Without ever once deviating from a conversational tone, Ebert could make watching Welles, Bresson, Ozu and Mizoguchi sound like nothing less than the purest joy,” wrote Variety’s Justin Chang. 

Roger was what I call a “silver lining” critic, one who goes into every film hoping it’ll be great and was saddened if it wasn’t, yet still looked for pleasing aspects. He sometimes caught flack for grading on a curve -- for judging a movie not against the towering masterworks of cinema art, but against other films of its type. There were times when that philosophy made him seem like a grade-inflating “nice guy” teacher, even someone who’d taken leave of his senses. (Four stars for The Loss of Sexual Innocence? Seriously? And I'll never understand his fondness for Paul Haggis' Crash.) But other times it was hard to argue with his methods and conclusions because hey, look at the films. Is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a four-star movie? If you must rate by stars, absolutely. Ditto Oldboy, one of the great visceral-psychological mind-twisters, and the first Lethal Weapon, a world-class example of what Roger called a “bruised forearm movie.” (How many hilarious moviegoing shorthand phrases did Roger coin or popularize? Hundreds, at least. My favorites are “fruit cart scene,” “semi-obligatory lyrical interlude” and “Leno device.”)

There was always joy in his writing, and it came from the joy he took in living. He was truly, madly, deeply in love with his wife Chaz, his best friend and strongest advocate. He was relentlessly productive and very canny about investigating new technology and figuring out how he could use it to communicate. His sensibility was so naturally warm and inviting that it was easy to overlook how tough and unsentimental he could be about the media he used so superbly. He was a veteran newspaperman who got his start at a time when stories were still created on typewriters, but he and Gene Siskel instinctively understood the value of TV as an amplifier of print, and over the years their TV show intertwined with Ebert's own written criticism to the point where each seemed an extension of the other. This strategy seemed prescient even then, when newspapers were still a powerful force in American life; I dimly recall a piece from the early 1980s that referred to him and Siskel as veterans of "one of the few big cities in America where newspapers still compete," a reminder that the industry's death started earlier than most of us were ready to accept. When Roger got to the end of the 1990s – the last great decade for newspapers, and in retrospect the beginning of their final decline – he started to look ahead to the next frontier, or frontiers. He did pioneering, successful work in CD-ROMs, then moved into online journalism, building his own site and intertwining it with that of his home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, in ways that make those two outlets seem as fused as the Sun-Times and the TV series had seemed in the 1970s and '80s. He took to Twitter like a duck to water. He championed the video essay and included examples of it in his recent, lamentably short-lived TV show Ebert Presents At the Movies. He was the youngest old man any of us knew. 

His health problems not only failed to slow him down, they seemed at times to energize him. He did more before lunchtime than most of us did in a week. There were times in the last few years when I'd look at his Twitter stream, his web site and the near-continual chain of emails on which we were both cc'd, along with many other colleagues -- the National Society of Film Critics, EbertFest, -- and marvel that a man who'd endured so much could even function, much less thrive. But thrive Roger did. Adversity didn't just make him more defiantly prolific, it seemed to amplify his goodness. He grew kinder and more thoughtful by the year. 

And whether he was writing or speaking, on paper or on television or onscreen, it was always about the words, the words, the words. 

The words were his. He was his words. 

We remember Roger. We will always remember Roger. He normalized cinephilia. He made finding the art in life and the life in art seem unremarkable yet deeply satisfying activities, things that everyone could and should do. 

We didn’t so much absorb his insights as walk through them, like a door in a dream that opens to reveal a previously unnoticed room.

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  • sashi | April 16, 2013 11:11 PMReply

    The papers all over North America are teeming with articles on Roger Ebert but none with the resonance of the above.
    Perhaps the simplest way to describe the influence of Ebert was to see a movie,read Roger Ebert's review and go and see the film again just for the sheer reason to see what he saw and what you missed.His reviews were better than some of the movies he reviewed.
    Just read his reviews of THE EUROPEANS,BROOKLYN'S FINEST and BLUE VELVET among others.
    You see the magic.
    Good Bye Roger - the movies may never be the same again.

  • Deborah | April 10, 2013 11:46 PMReply

    He was a master at his craft if there ever was one. How I looked forward to his reviews. How I loved what he said about 'Casablanca,' and how he felt about 'Do The Right Thing,' and 'Taxi Driver.' How delighted I was to discover that he and I both have Ingrid Bergman as a favorite actress. Roger was a writer of great power and influence. He had a unique talent of both intellect and spirit. I am heart broken over his passing.

  • Tom | April 6, 2013 9:03 AMReply

    Absoluely beautiful essay. Thank you for this wonderful tribute.

  • Edward Copeland | April 5, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    Roger didn't only embrace and shower generosity upon so many critics and bloggers who came after him, for many he was a presence in their lives long before they ever had the opportunity to interact with him in some way. He truly was America's Ambassador to Movies, not film, not cinema, but movies. He loved the sublime as well as the ridiculous with equal affection and passion. Did I always agree with him? No, but no one is going to agree with another critic 100% of the time because they're all subjective opinions. While I wasn't crazy about Crash, I didn't have the neverending bile for the film that so many have. Television may have made Roger famous, the Internet and social media may have made him an unofficial shepherd, but Roger, first and foremost, was a writer. We'll still have a lot of words and a lot of clips, but losing that prolific a prose voice so soon after he spoke so optimistically about grand new plans after announcing the return of the dreaded cancer shocked and saddened me, not beyond words but into them for the first time in a long while. Nicely done, Matt.

  • Edward Copeland | April 5, 2013 5:35 PM

    I forgot a story I wanted to include above. I can't remember where it came from -- but I vaguely recall it being on one of Robert Altman's many commentary tracks. He said he ran into Ebert soon after Roger had given one of his films a bad review. Altman took no offense and told Roger, "If you never gave me a bad review, how could I believe you when you gave me a good one?"

  • dan aronson | April 5, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    beautiful essay!

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