Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Screen Darkens: Farewell, Roger Ebert

Today, I lost a friend I never met.

But Roger Ebert had the uncanny ability to make everyone feel they were listening to their best friend -- their smartest, wittiest and sometimes most irritating friend -- urge them to share his passion, feel his enthusiasm, argue with his opinions.

Ebert died today, and with him went the certitude of his thoughts, the disarming and unbelievable intelligence he brought to even the simplest of ideas.  Whether in his prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning writing or his fiery arguments (and just as passionate agreements) with rival film critic Gene Siskel, Ebert condensed and often simplified -- without dumbing down -- complex and frequently challenging views.

When Ebert reviewed films, he did so neither with the sensibilities of a pop-culture enthusiast nor with the highbrow elitism of a film theorist.  He rarely discussed a movie's artistic genesis, the oeuvre of an artist, the composition or intent of a filmmaker.

He just told you whether he liked a movie or not.

Behind his judgment was the enthusiasm of a young boy riding high on adventure, a man aware of life's pitfalls, a celebrity-in-his-own-right who hob-nobbed with the biggest names, an ink-stained journalist who cared about words.

He could be cultured, he could be simple, he could be outrageously smart, he could be silly.  Though he could not have been untouched by his own status, he rarely let his position and accomplishments affect his views on movies.  He just knew what he liked -- and what he didn't.  More often than not, it aligned with what other Americans liked and didn't.

Ebert could be scathing, he could tell everyone from his platform, "I hated, hated, hated this movie."  He could become practically rabid in his zeal to tear down or build up a movie that inspired passion in him.  And then he would listen to the other point of view, most famously represented by slightly more upscale Siskel, and share it or attack it with equal fervor.

Just the way you do when you go to movies.

He didn't care about the budget of a movie (well, almost never), he didn't care about the stars or the political and corporate machinations that went into making a movie.  He just wanted you to see the good ones, steer clear of the bad ones -- and sometimes secretly enjoy a wretched one.

My moviegoing life was shaped by Ebert.  Siskel, too, absolutely, but it is Ebert we mourn today (and Siskel we remember -- an irony the longtime foes would probably both hate and relish), and mourn him we should.  We often lose people.  We often lose people with great ideas or who have made great accomplishments.  So rarely do we lose a voice.

Ebert helped me understand that it was OK to like a film everyone else despised, to find magic in the flickering lights of the theater even when others saw something different.  He helped me learn that the best way to analyze a movie wasn't through its mise-en-scene, its cinematography, its editing or the artistic sensibilities of its director; the best way to analyze a movie was by deciding whether you liked it or didn't, and being able to articulate that.

"No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough," Ebert famously said.  I think of that phrase a lot when I look at the running time on a DVD box and think, "I can't sit through a three-hour movie."  But he was right, not just about long (good) movies, but about other kinds of films: documentaries, which can show you a different way; lengthy films and foreign films, because they can transport you to places you never dreamed possible; independent films, because they remind you not everyone sees things the same way.  He was right about bad films, too -- short bad films, long bad films, or successful and popular bad films: Life's too short.

Ebert's certainly was.

Roger Ebert was always right about movies.  Even when he was wrong, he was right.

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