Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
As a guy who writes & make games, I don’t talk about the movies much. But I pay a lot of attention to them. They’re a touchstone for our culture’s tastes, its drift, its direction. We can learn a lot about what’s best — and worst — at any given time by what’s up on the big screen. And when I think about cinema, about the good, the bad, and the atrocious, I invariably want to compare notes with Roger Ebert.
As a film critic, as a writer, and as a human being, I had an immense amount of respect for this man. I don’t say, “He was one of my heroes,” lightly, but yeah, there it is. This is a guy who drank with Royko and Terkel, who cranked out hundreds of movie reviews a year over a long career, and whose homespun but still sophisticated takes on politics & culture informed and enlivened all of his work.
Chicago is not a city much storied for its intellectual traditions. Historically, we tended to get overshadowed by the coastal cities, with their greater control of the media, and the internet has only slowly begun to correct this. But if you’re an intellectual or a member of the chattering classes from Chicago, you have a pantheon, and often it will include names like Bellow, Brooks, Royko, Terkel — and Ebert. And if you’re an expat Chicagoan, like me, you treasure a name like Ebert, because it carried so far. Fuck you, New York and Boston; we do grow sophistication out there. Tremble, Los Angeles; Roger has his eye on you.
Never mind that, though. Have you read his writing? Ebert never failed at being witty, succinct, and insightful — usually all at once. If you tell stories in any medium, you could do a lot worse for a teacher regarding what works and what doesn’t than Ebert’s reviews. Unencumbered by the need to bolster an academic argument, they cut right to the heart of what’s good and bad in a story and how it’s told.
Chicago has lost one of its legends, and cinema has lost one of the sharpest minds ever to engage with it. I will miss Roger Ebert’s takes on our art and culture, but I do hope that his passing provides an occasion for more people to discover his writing. Where a film was a valuable cultural artifact, his review often enhances. And where a film was a piece of cultural detritus, it’s Ebert’s snarky mule-kick of a review that is the valuable cultural artifact.
His beloved Sun-Times carried a fine obituary. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, skip to the end. The quote from him at its conclusion cemented my opinion that we’ve lost a great man.