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On Ebert

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Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, there were two kinds of houses: Tribune houses, and Sun-Times houses.

The Tribune families tended to be more erudite, more concerned with the bigger picture. They indulged in the paper’s annoying habit of featuring national or global news on the front page, while news of local interest was buried beneath the fold. If Chicago was ever really a “Second City,” the Tribune was the Second City’s paper, aching to compete with the New York Times.

We were a Sun-Times house. We got the thin tabloid tossed on our porch every morning. Unless someone shot the Pope, that front page was Chicago news every damn day. Flip it over and you got sports. Robert Feder covering the local media beat, Richard Roeper columns, Neil Steinberg and Irv Kupcinet, Jim DeRogatis on music and tips & twaddle from Michael Sneed. And of course, Ebert.

Roger Ebert film reviews, every Friday in the paper, casually tossed onto newsprint like they were something disposable. Sometimes they were; one of many remarkable things about the life of Roger Ebert is that he managed to write about hundreds of movies a year. At his most active, there was little that escaped his view, and if a movie tried, then that by itself was reason to believe it was crap.

Even his most tossed-off pieces would frequently pivot into a few beautiful lines, perfectly composed, that managed to encapsulate the picture so perfectly, and sometimes ascend beyond it. Greil Marcus has a line in his introduction to the book of Lester Bangs pieces he edited: “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is the willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.”

To really appreciate Roger Ebert meant accepting that one of the country’s great living writers would deign to waste words on Battleship. Or North, about which he famously wrote, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” He managed to squeeze two fantastic books out his “best” negative reviews, and they’re hilarious, but more importantly, they are the work of a man fully engaged with each filmmaking atrocity.

He never dismissed a film. It could be horribly made and a complete waste of time, but he would regard it with the same even-handed consideration that he gave the latest arthouse darling or Oscar race favorite. To see that many movies, to write about that many movies, and to still remain somehow fair about them…it was a remarkable thing to watch over the years.

He judged movies on their own terms. Not the expectations he brought to them, or some elevated standard of “great filmmaking” to which each film must aspire. If a cheap horror flick could bring skill to its jump scares, he recognized that.

His style was plain and conversational in the best possible way. You read his pieces and felt as though you were talking to a clear-headed, brilliant friend. There’s an essay of his about death from his 2011 memoir Life Itself that’s making the rounds on the internet. If you haven’t read it, take the time. Pay attention to the way he connects words together for such maximum impact, clarity, and beauty.

“We must try to contribute joy to the world,” he writes. “That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

“We must try.” Three words where a lesser writer might have wasted ten or fifteen. Another unforgettable quote, from his first Great Movies review collection: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”

“We live in a box of space and time.” That is a sentence to savor.

I knew this was coming, but losing Ebert is still crushing news. His reviews were central to my formative years as someone becoming aware of pop culture and movies. He was Chicago; he was without pretension but still intelligent, direct and savagely funny. He loomed large in my legend.

When I was in college I wrote a review of the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Picture Perfect as a fabricated conversation between myself and Ebert, staged at the urinals at our local screening room. (I did actually see him in that bathroom, although I didn’t say more than “Hello” at the time.) I sent him a copy and he sent me a really nice short note.

We’re hearing a lot of those stories now, anecdotes big and small about Ebert’s unwavering support of younger writers and critics. He never wanted to just pronounce judgement on films; he wanted to be part of a conversation, and he would engage that conversation at every opportunity.

Once my wife and I sat one table over from Ebert as he brought his wife and her family to one of the city’s great diners, the Golden Nugget on Clark (now closed). We overheard him saying to his guests, “Every time I eat here, I wonder why I don’t come here for every meal.” Even about shitty diner food, he had impeccable taste. I think of that too when I read his hilarious (and also pretty accurate) quotes on the signs outside his favorite restaurant: “If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice were up to me, it would be Steak ‘n Shake–and they would be delighted.”

Roger Ebert was first and foremost a film critic. He is being honored as such, and he deserves every accolade. For me, he was simply an amazing brain, capable of composing magnificent prose, most of which was about film. He also wrote a serialized fiction about The Phantom of the Opera for the Sun-Times, and books about rice cookers and the perfect London walk. In the triumphant final act of his life (so sad, that now it’s “final”), with his speech lost to disease, he tackled not just movies but politics, evolution, and video games. He may have been wrong about that last one, but he would have come around eventually.

His was such a searching mind, constantly seeking—whether it was a brilliant new film, a fresh perspective on his life, or the secret inside a perfect hamburger. He never stopped asking questions and he never stopped considering the answers. His mind never closed.

I will miss that mind, more than I can say.