During my childhood, the closest I ever got to seeing the world was through movie. My family went to movie theaters in East L.A. after church on Sundays. The ride back home was always about an hour long (my mother had a fear of freeways and insisted that we take local streets), but the long ride was fine by me, as it allowed us to discuss the film as a family. But I also looked forward to reading Roger Ebert’s reviews in the Press Telegram every Friday. Over the years, his observations went far towards shaping how I thought about human behavior. As it must have felt to millions of people, it was as if you were a member of my family.
In 1989, I was 9 nine years old and it marked the first time I ever remember hearing about 2 critics rating a film with “2 thumbs up”. The film was Look Who’s Talking. Since then, without realizing, I began following hi career. When I studied film while in high school, I decided I needed a strong foundation for what I hoped would become a deep knowledge not just about film and its history, but also about the infinite possibility of subjects that films can be made about. One day, I read about his “Greatest Films” list. Without hesitation, I knew I wanted to watch them all, as they were being deemed “great” by someone who had been reviewing films for almost 3 decades at that time. I had no computer so I bought a notebook and wrote down every single film from this list and began highlighting each film immediately after watching it. To this day, I can’t think of any other person more qualified to provide us with a foundation of great films.
Mr. Ebert, as you battled health complications in recent years, I quietly prayed that your life would be extended for many years to come. It is sad for me to think that I will watch a film and be left to wonder what you would have thought about it, since few people seem capable or willing to discuss movies as mirrors of our human experience. After watching many films alone, your reviews always provided me with the opportunity to compare my thoughts to yours, creating an experience that often satisfied my need to discuss a film.
As I’ve encountered many of life’s challenging moments, having your list and your words has often been like a sanctuary when I’ve needed a couple hours to reflect. You led me to treasures that I may have never discovered, films such as Aguirre: Wrath of God, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Battle of Algiers, Dracula (1931), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Rififi, Crumb, Fanny and Alexander, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. As I’ve reviewed your list during this last year, I’ve added the following films to my own list of great films; A Woman Under the Influence, House of Games, Santa Sangre, The Last Picture Show, Come and See, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, La Belle Noiseuse, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Sunrise, with dozens of other films living well in my memory.
You introduced and furthered my understanding and appreciation of Fellini, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Fassbinder, Milos Forman, and Buster Keaton. Your list, being the most comprehensive list I could have ever used as my foundation, allowed me to appreciate the unique characteristics of film noir, world cinema, silent cinema, independents and the classics. Some of the most enjoyable and spiritual moments I’ve ever had have involved watching silent films in a dark room at home. In fact, I’ve often made it a point to share some of these cinematic gems with my family, and it’s amazing to see how something with universal and timeless charm will win over the hearts of people with very different backgrounds.
The thing about movie-watching is that it creates a movie critic in everyone. But what they sometimes don’t see is that your life experience and your extensive career experience provides nuggets of insight that point out things that often go unnoticed. With you, it was always about the story and characters. Other production elements were commendable perhaps, but the richness of great storytelling lies in the nuances behind a character’s actions and motivations, and in the intricate storytelling devices that can move our emotions. Your writings, beyond being merely commentary about film, serve as insightful about life, period. I remember you mentioning in one review, for instance, that one of the underlying motivations for why people get married is so that they could have someone witness their life. Sometimes I even think that underneath my passion for studying/witnessing the lives of the characters in a film is my own quiet desire to have someone witness my own. And, as if your reviews didn’t already offer enough content to make us contemplate various human issues, reading your material has often served as a good refresher of film concepts and personable history. For example, for the film Army of Shadows, you made the following remarks, ““Action releases tension and makes it external”, and at a time when movie hitmen were larger than life, this film reduced the existence of a professional assassin to ritual, solitude, simplicity and understatement.” Melville knew that life for a fighter was not a series of romantic scenes played in trench coats, but ambiguous everyday encounters that could result in death. The exploits of his heroes are not meant to reflect real events as to evoke real states of mind.” Mr. Ebert, I have always considered entries such as this to be worth gold!
I know you’ll never get a chance to read this now, but my heart beats just a bit easier tonight, knowing that I took the time to write about how much your life has meant to me. I sometimes wish I would have been born in Chicago 20 years earlier so that I would have had the chance to share a few beers — or something as I know you quit drinking — to talk about movies. But I will continue to take your insights and your words with me. Wven if your words could not survive forever, they will live as long as I’m alive. Someday, when I have kids, I will make sure that your words live as long as they live as well.
Thank you for always sharing your knowledge and passions with us. And though you are already deeply missed, I know that in the days, months and years to come, I will rejoice in the fact that you have left us with 46 years of insight, and in this way, I look forward to many more conversations with you.