Roger Ebert: More Than a Critic

I’ve never felt such a personal attachment to someone I didn’t know personally. Upon hearing the news of Roger Ebert’s passing last week, I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed. America had lost one of its great writers, but I felt like I had lost a close friend.

It may sound sappy, but that’s the only way I can explain my emotions. Ebert was an important mentor to me, even though he had no idea who I was. The closest I came to conversing with him was in the comment section on his blog where he directly responded to a comment I had made. That was a good day.

Writing for a living is a difficult thing to do. Ebert made it look easy. Not only that, he made it look glamorous. He had a command of the English language that I envied. He strayed away from snark and instead reveled in good old-fashioned ribbing. He was a master at turning a phrase. His writing was plain, yet complex at the same time. He was rarely overly verbose, but his words usually carried hefty subtext. He had uniqueness to his writing. I couldn’t get enough.

Whenever you write something and show it to the world, you bare a little bit of your soul. Ebert wrote so prolifically that he bared most everything. Perhaps that’s why I felt so close to him. His writing was intensely intimate at times. Not just his reviews, but his blogs about life, science and belief. His book ‘Life Itself‘ contains some of his most poignant and beautiful writing. The chapter entitled “Blackie” about a boy and his dog is more emotional than any dramatic film.

His writing was also uniquely accessible. While many critics delve into obscure film history and references, Ebert usually retained a more personal approach. That’s why I loved his reviews so much. They were less about his deep knowledge of film and more about the emotions he felt while viewing each movie. Almost always, Ebert constructed logical arguments of why he loved or hated a movie. Agreeable to me or not, his reviews were always based on sound arguments.

I remember feeling vindication when I opened up his review of ‘The Village’ and learned that he absolutely hated it. I remember seething when I walked out of that movie. I was angry that I’d just spent my precious time watching it, and angry at the people around me who said, “I kinda liked it.” After that, his review of ‘The Village’ became one that I’d revisit time and again. Those last two paragraphs are classic Ebert:

Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we’re back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.

I tried to emulate him in my writing, but I quickly found that it was a futile exercise. His accomplished wordsmithing left me wondering if I could ever be so good. Instead, I tried to emulate the way he looked at movies. I remember thinking, “A man who would put ‘Babe: Pig in the City’ on his Top 10 list of movies from 1998 really doesn’t care what other people think.” Ebert usually looked on the positive side of things. You really got the feeling that he genuinely loved movies and desperately wanted every one of them to be good.

I wish I could’ve known him. I wish I could’ve watched a movie with him. I’m saddened that I started going to the Sundance Film Festival around the same time he was stricken with cancer. I’m jealous of my colleagues who spent year after year with him at the festival, and who have stories about talking with him in line and seeing him at screenings.

Ebert inspired me to chase the unrealistic dream of becoming a film critic. Without knowing it, he had a deep impact on who I am as a writer. I’ll miss seeing him produce new work. He was the friend I never met.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Ebert review quotes ever. About ‘The Sandlot’, he quipped:

These days too many children’s movies are infected by the virus of Winning, as if kids are nothing more than underage pro athletes, and the values of Vince Lombardi prevail: It’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. This is a movie that breaks with that tradition, that allows its kids to be kids, that shows them in the insular world of imagination and dreaming that children create entirely apart from adult domains and values.

That quote perfectly encapsulates, for me, the way Ebert thought about movies.


  1. Mike

    Great piece.

    Just one thing. This:

    “Ebert inspired me to chase the unrealistic dream of becoming a film critic.”

    You’ve been a working critic for at least four years as far as I know! Not an unrealistic dream at all.

  2. My first contact with Roger was about 10 years ago when he mistakenly thought I posted one of his reviews early on a website forum (it was someone else) and bent over backwards apologizing when he realized it wasn’t me.

    While I can’t say I was ever friends with him, he went out of his way to make fans/followers feel like friends – staying in touch via Facebook and Twitter over the years and often giving you your own “thumbs up” (i.e, a “like” or a short comment) when he laughed at something particularly witty you may have wrote.

    I’ve had a lot of colleagues over the years give me positive feedback, but trust me folks – there’s nothing better than having someone like Roger Ebert tell you that you made him laugh.

    I’ll miss him.

    • Mike Attebery

      I got a nice email from him about 8 years ago when I asked if he had any editing work on his site. He forwarded my email to Jim Emerson to see if I could help out, but I have a hunch Emerson was guarding his turf, cause except for a brief “I’ll get back to you” email, I never heard another word. I did however hear from Ebert again when I wished him well when he returned from his first serious health crisis. Such a great guy.

      • Aaron Peck

        For how immensely popular he was, the fact that he answered so many emails is crazy to me. I wish I would’ve emailed him once or twice. I always had this feeling that he’d be far too busy to acknowledge me. Now I know that wouldn’t have been the case.

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