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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.