by Joey Hackenjos
I’ve always had a short list in my mind of aging celebrities whose inevitable passing will impact me – genuine emotion felt for a person that I have never actually met. Recent deaths like Billy Wilder, Charles M Schulz and Kurt Vonnegut have caused me sorrow, but I feel that my “Mount Rushmore” of aging celebrities – Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Dick Van Dyke, Alan Alda, David Letterman – is beginning to crack and crumble. The face that fell off today was Roger Ebert’s (pun inappropriately intended).
Why do we mourn the loss of artists who have had long, productive, probably fulfilling lives worthy of envy? Most are long past their creative primes, but still somehow the world seems like a different place without their hearts beating. Ebert’s death is particularly sad to me not only because he is my favorite Film Critic but because although he was 70 years old, I would argue that he had just hit his prime in the last six years when cancer treatments took away his ability to speak and his movie reviews became exclusively written works.
The celebrities that I am emotionally attached to are those whose work speak to a special place in my mind. A small part of me believes that they are unconsciously creating art just for me.. or, well, for a small demographic that includes me. When I read Ebert’s reviews, I often felt like he took the thoughts that I hadn’t fully formed in my mind while watching the film and put them into elegant words that I couldn’t quite summon on my own.
Once his writing became his only means of communication, Ebert’s full talent was given a proper outlet. He watched films with a refreshing open-mindedness. It was obvious that he wanted to like every movie that he watched – not that he shied away from pointing out when a movie was terrible – but he would sift through even average films and find something to take away from it; he wanted to uncover something valuable. To me, this certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt attitude is refreshing because so many popular critics make their living off of cynicism and passive shrugging of their subject’s merit. At the same time, Ebert’s writing was highly intelligent but avoided the pitfalls of many high-brow reviewers who focus more on formulating academic, analytic angles than on just telling us how the movie made them feel. Ebert didn’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of any filmmaker’s intent, but he didn’t deny it when he was left awestruck by something intangible. I’ll try to illustrate this with an excerpt from his Tree of Life review – a film that immediately bumped into Ebert’s top 10 of all time two years ago:
“I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things”
While a less interesting reviewer may have tried to define Malick’s meaning of life with a loosely supported thesis (something about grace, the afterlife or the sleeping habits of dinosaurs), Ebert settles on simply declaring that this film made him feel something for real, damn it.
For another example of Ebert’s artful response to a magnificent film that is nearly impossible to describe clearly, I highly recommend his review of Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche,New York.
Like Vonnegut, another of my philosophical role models, Ebert was a Humanist: full of love, empathy and passion for experiencing life. He lived with an open mind, constantly sought new knowledge and always allowed his opinions to evolve; he wrote that he was frightened by absolutists and “more content with questions than answers”. In a society where so many people you meet are uninterested in the other side of their unmovable opinions, I imagine that Roger Ebert was the kind of man who you could spend hours happily dissecting any topic with.
With Roger Ebert’s passing, we have lost a unique connection to the history of film. Honestly, are there any film critics alive who have interviewed John Wayne and Ingmar Bergman and also reviewed Argo?
Roger Ebert loved movies. He helped explain to me why I love movies. He preferred human dramas with moral purpose but could also enjoy pointless comedies that made him laugh and everything in between. Honestly, what I find most sad about his death is that he won’t have the experience of seeing the many upcoming movies that he must have been looking forward to. Maybe they were some of the same movies I have on my list: Upstream Color, The Great Gatsby, Much Ado About Nothing, To The Wonder, Frances Ha, Before Midnight… plus a thousand others that I haven’t even heard of. The life you get to experience is always a gift and I’ll continue to watch movies with zeal, but in the back of my mind I’ll know that I’ll never fully understand what I’m experiencing because Roger Ebert won’t be there to help me put it into words.