India Ross: My phone buzzed in the middle of the night with a text from an old friend from school. He had to tell me that Roger Ebert had died. It had been five years since school ended, and we’d grown up in a rustic corner of England, four thousand miles from the offices of the Chicago Sun-Times. It didn’t matter: Mr Ebert, like the cinema he championed, did not discriminate by age, experience or geography. A couple of kids from Cornwall with no more going for them than a dodgy old cinema and a fanatical love of "Groundhog Day" could join the big conversation through him: post-picture debates were won and lost on arguments bootlegged from Ebert. I can say without hyperbole that he was, as a guide I’d stumbled upon during marathons of internet film geekery, the reason I could justify going to the movies for a living. Suffice to say, there is an old note on my desk which reads: “What Would Ebert Do.”
I remember the way the clips unspooled, with that unforgettable Carter Burwell music playing over it, and I also remember thinking, deep down inside: I must see this movie. It took some lobbying to get my mother to let me see the movie, but I finally watched it on VHS. And then I watched it again. And again. And again. I watched it over and over because I really loved it – the blood reminded me of the horror movies I would sneakily watch late at night on the secondhand television given to me by my grandparents (as profound a childhood relic as a baseball bat or bicycle) and even then I thought it was pretty hilarious – but I was always watching and rewatching because I wanted to know why Siskel and Ebert loved it, what they saw in it. It was, after all, something they could agree on. I wanted to agree too.
As my cultural and critical tastes expanded, Ebert was no longer the galvanizing force he once was. He seemed safe, bland, lacking in the color and sharpness of some of my favorite writers. His thumbed verdict meant very little to me. But then a series of tragic events, beginning with the death of his longtime partner Gene Siskel and culminating in his devastating cancer treatment, which left him without the ability to eat or speak, left Ebert strangely reinvigorated. After he got sick, his presence on television was replaced with a grand residency on the Internet. He wrote so damn much. The illness didn't strike him down or even weaken him; instead it was like a bolt of lightning, inspiring some of the most cutting, incisive and clever writing in his already lengthy career. When most people would roll over and give up, Ebert rose to the occasion and made us all remember why he was the most important and beloved film critic of all time. Everything about him became inspirational. Again.
A couple of weeks ago I was grinding through some review of a movie I was fairly sure no one would see (or read about) and feeling sapped of energy and lacking in the fundamental creative juices required to make it happen. In times like these I would often think: How does Ebert still write so well about even the crappiest little movie, even now? I never got the answer, of course, and I finished the review.
Even when you didn't agree with him, Ebert was still an absolute joy to read. He was always witty and funny and effusive. Ebert talked about movies in a way that would make a 13-year-old kid in San Antonio, Texas beg his mother to let him watch a movie about a "true crime" kidnapping and murder spree. He wasn't always right (his crusade against eighties horror movies seems particularly misguided in hindsight), but he was always great. I never communicated with Ebert directly but one time he re-tweeted a Playlist piece I had had a hand in. I hope that he read what I wrote and liked what he read, but I'll never know. Still, that simple re-tweet had me walking on air for the rest of the day. He was, after all, someone who had a profound effect on the man I have become. When I come home tonight from a screening and look at the "Fargo" poster on my bedroom wall, I'll probably miss him even more.
Mark Zhuravsky: Goodbye Mr. Ebert. Thank you for your wit, your strength and for inviting us into your life so warmly in your later years. You resisted being defined by your place in pop culture lore and instead took chances - lived, loved, and learned. We are forever grateful.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Ebert’s family. It goes without saying that the world lost someone truly special yesterday, and that we all will continue to be inspired by his great work for many, many years to come. Feel free to share your own Ebert stories in the comments; we look forward to reading them. And check out Criticwire's thoughts and reflections as well. The balcony might be closed, but it will never be empty.