Richard Dawkins thanked him today for leading a thoughtful and decent life. To the best of my knowledge, Ebert never said or wrote anything I disagree with, and he wrote a lot of things that I very happily did agree with. I’m not the fanatical movie fan that I used to be (I still am a big fan, but life gets in the way of fanatical pursuit of movies – after all, there’s all this facebooking to be done…), and Ebert was my earliest pusher of that drug, him and his accomplice, Siskel.
At some point around age 6, everyone in the family started to religiously watch Sneak Previews on PBS. I mostly didn’t get what they were talking about at the time, but my little spongey brain soaked up all of the names (names of movies, names of actors, names of directors, names of genres, all kinds of nouns that get referenced in movies, so *many* names) and filed them all away, made little shelves for each name that I later, slowly, thanks to the twin miracles of videotape and libraries, filled in, by renting the movies, reading books and articles about directors, reading adapted novels and movie novelizations for clues to the motivations of the characters or explanations of continuity errors… Siskel and Ebert were my first two chosen teachers, and while it took me decades, I did all the homework they gave me.
At the same time, my cool uncle was taking me to movies like Phantom of the Paradise and Rocky Horror and lots of gory horror flicks, all the stuff that most kids don’t get to discover (and have their minds bent by) until they’re at least old enough to pass for 18. Now, when an 8 year old who loves movies goes to a theatre full of college students in full Rocky regalia and experiences the full show, with all the bawdy jokes expertly delivered by a statuesque Frank in full drag sitting RIGHT across the aisle from him…
Well, first off, that kid doesn’t realize until he’s 41 and writing about the death of his favorite reviewer just HOW lucky he was to have experienced THAT cultural moment, more or less as it was happening, and have his mind bent in all the *right* ways. To experience a sweet transvestite calling out sarcastic jokes and basically being the king of a room where nobody is being put down or insulted (except for the hypocritical values that require this awesome party, this bacchanalia, this ritual incantation to joyful deviance, the hypocritical values that require this to be happening late at night, in a darkened room, and under the pretense of simply being a bunch of kids watching a movie), was a new and liberating social paradigm.
That Frank across the aisle, that sexy lady that spoke in a scratchy male shout, was truly the very antithesis of the social scenes I was enduring at elementary school, where “faggot” was an insult (and Louis C.K.’s comedy bit notwithstanding, I, at least, understood exactly what was meant by “faggot”) and putting others down seemed to be the primary object of every activity, both sponsored and spotaneous, in which they engaged. To me, that hour and a half in that first Rocky was 90 minutes in a heaven of whose existence NOBODY, no priest, no parent, no teacher, nobody had informed me; I walked out literally converted. The Movies, then, became where I was free of pain, free of persecution, and emboldened, thanks to the example of those college students in drag, to live out whatever fantasy I could collaboratively create with the movie for as long as the reels held out. I was looking, in other words, for a safe place to keep my soul, and something very closely resembling a historical reenactment of Plato’s cave, as it turns out, is the place I found. Could’ve been worse, and it probably couldn’t have been any better anyways, for any of us.
I started talking about Ebert and ended up in Ancient Greece. Sorry. My point is, movies have never been just entertainment to me, and I think that’s why I don’t go to them very often anymore, and why I always seem to find myself deeply ambiguous about what I see when I do go. A childish, cultish part of me that’s still just as fanatical as ever about the movies wants to say that Roger died of heartbreak. That the guy who cowrote Beyond The Valley of the Dolls with Russ Meyer, who stands with Pauline Kael as her equal, who was half of a pair as iconic to film as Laurel and Hardy, that the guy who was there in the thick of it for one of the truly golden eras of film as a genuine popular art form, that that guy is dead because his heart is broken at what film has become. Sure, you can blame it on the cancer if you want, but he beat that shit once, he could’ve beat it again if Hollywood hadn’t died of the blight years ago…
But I’m just projecting my own feelings onto him, and I came here to talk about Ebert, because now Ebert is dead. Celebrity deaths have never bothered me much, even as a fan, but Ebert was more than that to me. As a movie fan with some rather debilitating social anxieties that have always made it difficult to have more than a couple of close friends at any one time (who weren’t always movie fans), I very often found myself, quite happily, going to the movies by myself. Since I didn’t have to take anyone else’s desires into consideration, I made good movie choices almost all the time in terms of whether it was worth the money (after all, I know what I’m gonna like pretty well), but the big problem came after I walked out, and had nobody to discuss the movie with. Sometimes I could call someone up who I knew had seen it, but they hadn’t *just* seen it, and generally were making dinner, or watching tv, or wanting to do anything but listen to me babble on about the movie they saw last week.
So what could I do? I took to the internet, and looked up Ebert’s review, because Ebert was, most of the time, the only guy that I could have an intelligent conversation about the movie with, besides being an old friend of the family. And in the spirit of that collaborative art consumption that I referred to earlier, I created whole conversations with him in my head (someone is picking up the phone to call the men in white coats, I suspect, at this point), because his reviews, and I’m not sure how many people have latched onto this concept yet so I’m going to be momentarily pedantic in the service of tribute to the dead, but his reviews are themselves a form of art. It is very rare that one can say this about a critic, but Roger Ebert was not actually a critic – Roger Ebert was a writer. Ebert found himself working in a critical medium, but remember, Ebert’s earliest writing credit is for co-writing one of the most well-known B movies of all time. His blue collar father sent him to university with the intention of making him a professor. Ebert was, to paraphrase Dawkins, a thoughtful and decent man who spoke his views with articulation, and a fair bit of grace besides, and that’s as good a definition of a writer as I can think of. Even when he hated a movie, he was constructive about it on some level. Or at least funny.
I once abused his Answer Man email address and sent him a fan letter on it. I do that: I lose my cool around people I admire, sometimes with a very creative definition of the word “around”. It probably pissed him off, but I know I can’t be the only one – at a certain point, Ebert’s reviews felt like a perfumed note sent down the food chute to one of those trapped miners in South America a few years back – a tiny thing to cling to for endless monotonous days while waiting for something else to happen, and dreading what that something else might be. Melodramatic, yes – a word I learned from Ebert. And while I’m enumerating my flaws, I’ll also mention that I tend to talk about myself a lot. But then, I suppose since this is a personal tribute, it’s really all about me in the end anyways. Yeah, fuck Ebert, man, that guy was an egomaniac!
I kid, but I don’t. Ebert inspired me in ways that saved my life. At one point, I wanted to be a film reviewer, and it was entirely because of his reviews, and the way that when he wrote about a film, his subject was not just the film – even if he was sitting in the theatre with us, he was not one of the chained prisoners of the cave. The film, invariably, dealt with ideas, if Ebert was bothering to write about it in the first place. It might have directly set out to make a statement about something, or it might simply have been an example of something that he had on his mind at the time, or it might be both, but no matter what, the film was Ebert’s foil to give his own thoughts on those ideas, perhaps in response to the film, perhaps in advocacy of the film, perhaps in rebuke of what the film represented to him. Ebert was no gossip columnist, and no entertainment guide. He was a writer.