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Notebook: Saying goodbye to Ebert

Chicago Sun-Times

By Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, arguably the greatest and without doubt the most identifiable film critic of the 20th century, died yesterday as a result of recurring complications from an extended battle with thyroid cancer. It was the same thyroid cancer that sidelined him from “Ebert & Roeper,” the same cancer that robbed him of that calm, measured voice and the same cancer that, for seven years, couldn’t keep him from writing about movies.

And when you look past all the touching goodbyes that’ll be published in the next few days, I think, at least for a moment, it’ll become clear what made Ebert Ebert: not the unending stream of book deals or the hyper-influential television shows that gave him as much recognition as many of the movies he wrote about, but a stubborn resilience — a dedication to keep moving forward and doing what he knew he loved.

At this point, many of you pessimists will probably become disgruntled by my use of the phrase “doing what he loved” and dismiss this homage-slash-eulogy like you would of someone who brings a Hallmark card to a funeral. My 14-year-old self would agree with you; the whole “following your dream” part is old, a phrase thrown around in the third act of feel-good movies in a vain attempt to make two hours and $10 spent at the movie theater mean something. But after a certain point, maybe it’ll be an essay you’ll write or a book you’ll read that unveils some sense of undiminished clarity, you stop feeling superior to the content that you examine. For me, that moment came when I took an active interest in watching movies.

For Roger Ebert, that moment came when he started writing about the movies he watched. In Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, he describes how, while writing his first few reviews, he left the movie theater, formulating the “exact angle of condescension” that would forever define his take on cinema. A clever phrase, bemoaning the abysmal state of Hollywood already floating around in his mind.

Even as the most fledgling of fledgling film critics, I can tell you confidently that this form of acerbic writing gets old and alienating. Fast. What allowed Ebert to gain traction with a mainstream audience and let film criticism, as a discernible form of writing in and of itself, gain hold within the world of professional journalism, is his willingness to accept movies open-mindedly because, just when he’d given up on ever loving his job, he described how “a movie would open that disarmed my defenses and left me ecstatic and joyful.”

With that openness came the belief that accessible writing wasn’t synonymous with stupidity or easiness. The crucial difference was trusting your audience to follow your arguments, no matter how thorough or complex. As long as you took the time to keep them engaged in a way that let them argue back, you could give yourself the opportunity to have a conversation with them — and at its core, that’s what writing reviews is all about.

The first words I ever wrote about a film weren’t directly inspired by that film, but by Ebert’s two-star review of it. I’m talking about “Fight Club,” David Fincher’s frantically stylized depiction of youth’s naive “fuck you” to creeping commercialization. Enraged at the mocking review, I wrote, “Wtf is Ebert thinking. This shit genius.” Words not exactly representative of a film connoisseur, but a response nonetheless. And that’s what mattered: The review got a response out of me without being alarmist bullshit. As someone who (at the time) was afraid to admit that he was developing an unhealthy habit of watching three movies every night, this was a major development.

In his last few days, Ebert did something he’d always avoided: He took an indefinite “leave of presence” (the title of his last blog) from his writing. In his essay, “I do not fear death,” Ebert writes, “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear,” professing his ultimate understanding of the inevitable. He seems at peace with what everyone knows will happen, but he never mentions how he will lose what has been one of the most significant parts of his life: his writing.

In his blog, he promised he’d still be there and would be taking steps to produce more content, but this was clearly a goodbye, a noticeable waver in confidence that I’d never before seen in Ebert’s writing. The reviews, blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates that had always been on the Internet, symbols of the critic’s perseverance, would stop appearing and eventually patter out of relevance.

As I think about Ebert’s life, I keep going back to his farewell to Gene Siskel, his longtime cohost of “Siskel & Ebert,” who passed away in 1999 after a bout with a cancerous brain tumor. In the opening statement, Ebert looks too at ease, as if trying too hard to maintain the air of composure that for so long had defined the extraordinarily popular show that made him famous. He speaks at length about Siskel’s passion for his work and how, despite his diagnosis and surgery, he kept coming in to do recordings of the show and how he phoned in reviews from his hospital bed. For a brief moment, he pauses and points to the now-empty movie theater seat next to him, describing how just a month ago, Siskel was sitting right there, talking about movies.

I can’t help but think Ebert’s passion is a reflection of what he learned in his time with Siskel, of the bond that they formed while sitting down and talking about movies — a bond that he formed and strengthened every week with every one of his readers.

In the last sentence of his last blog post, Ebert wrote, “See you at the movies.” Save me a seat, buddy. I’m looking forward to talking.