Thanks, Roger Ebert: You changed my life

It’s taken me some time to come to terms with the death of film critic Roger Ebert. It’s funny how such a loss can affect you, even when you never met the deceased. Yet I feel as if I’ve known Roger Ebert my whole life, having grown up watching his TV show, first with Gene Siskel and then with Richard Roeper, as religiously as most kids would view Saturday morning cartoons, and reading his print reviews every week. In this way I feel as if I’ve lost one of my dearest and closest friends.

My relationship with Roger Ebert began at the age of 12, when I picked up a copy of his newly published “The Great Movies” (2002) at the local library. The book was a collection of 100 essays on films he felt would serve as “a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema.” These were not “the” 100 greatest films of all time, explained Ebert, since “all lists of great movies are a foolish attempt to codify works which must stand alone.” Instead, he was offering a guide to anyone interested in exploring the very best of what cinema had achieved in its first 100 years, a launching pad to inspire further viewing.

At this point, I knew I loved movies, and I had already seen some of the titles in the book: “The Godfather” (1972), “Casablanca” (1943), “Gone with the Wind” (1939), “Fargo” (1996), “Some Like It Hot” (1959), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Psycho” (1960), “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), and so on, but many of them were a mystery to me. What was “The Seventh Seal” (1957)? Who were Federico Fellini, John Cassavetes, Preston Sturges or Luis Bunuel? There was a version of “Beauty and the Beast” (1946) other than the Disney one, and in French no less?

I read the book cover to cover, as you would any great work of literature. What incredible stories it told! Who knew that “Grand Illusion” (1938), the crowning achievement of Jean Renoir’s career, was almost lost for good after the Germans occupied France and seized the negative during WWII? Or that Erich von Stroheim‘s “Greed” (1922) was cut from a staggering nine hours to just over two, inspiring a heated battle between the director and MGM head-of-production Irving Thalberg. These stories were almost as riveting as the movies themselves.

Ebert’s reviews were so vivid and so rich that you could almost see the movie just by reading about it. He had achieved with me what every critic hopes to do with all readers: to inspire them to see a great movie. Upon finishing the book, I made it my mission to see every film detailed in it, and from there I saw “Seven Samurai” (1954), “Notorious” (1946), “Written on the Wind” (1956), “Nashville” (1975), “La Dolce Vita” (1960), “Persona” (1967), “Manhattan” (1979), “The 400 Blows” (1959), “Blowup” (1966), “Body Heat” (1981), “Days of Heaven” (1978), “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), “The General” (1927), and on and on and on. And I didn’t just stop there: seeing those films inspired me to seek out other films by those same directors, and then films by similar directors whom he routinely praised. From that day forward, my love of movies turned into an all-out obsession.

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Is it possible that I would’ve seen these movies without Ebert’s help? Of course it is. I spent four years in film school watching more or less the same works written about in “The Great Movies,” so you can argue that eventually I would’ve made these same discoveries. But it’s because of Ebert that I saw those films before I ever went to film school, and in fact, you could almost say that Ebert played a large role in my going to film school in the first place. Without his hand to guide me toward these great works of cinematic art, the passion might never have been sparked in me to make films of my own.

Ebert informed me and countless others of what I should see and what I should avoid – from the biggest blockbusters to the most obscure art films. No other critic achieved the kind of popularity and trust awarded him, and his influence was undeniable. How else would audiences come to find “My Dinner with Andre” (1981), “Hoop Dreams” (1994) or “Monster’s Ball” (2001)? When he loved a film, he stopped at nothing to get it out there and get it seen, and it’s because of his dedication and enthusiasm that many of these pictures became as successful as they did.

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Not only that, but the debates between Ebert and Siskel, and later with Roeper, made for great television. Whether they were passionately for or against a film, or passionately opposed to each other, the sparks generated made for some riveting arguments.

I’m lucky that I get to write about movies, and that people read what I write. I can thank Ebert for influencing me in that way too: he taught me that film criticism can be an art form in and of itself, and that advocating for a film that you love is more important than denouncing a movie that you hate. More importantly, he taught me to do what I love instead of doing something simply to make a living. I never got to meet Ebert, but he nonetheless changed my life in a profound way. I will greatly miss him.  

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