Thank You, Roger Ebert

roger-ebert-11 Around the time that I discovered the internet as a place of leisure, and not just research, I discovered movie reviews. I found it hugely satisfying to read movie reviews in the major publications – the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone. It was like sitting in on a cinematic round table with the leading lights of the film critics’ world. Some of their reviews were near works of art, literary pieces in their own right, offering insights into films that I couldn’t possibly dream of, and sometimes didn’t understand. I reacted to films and I could analyze my response, but not on the same level.

But there was one critic whom I read for his own sake, not the publication’s reputation, and that was Roger Ebert. I’d never seen his shows, either with Siskel or with Roeper, so I only know Ebert’s voice through his writing. And his reviews changed me. They changed how I watched movies, and they changed how I write today, as a critic of romance novels. I didn’t always agree with Roger Ebert, but his reviews always made sense. Rewatching films from his perspective, I understood where he came from. I trusted Ebert because I trusted that he was writing from his heart. We know reviewing is a subjective process, but sometimes, it seemed like he was the only one who put his heart on the line.

This sometimes resulted in him walking one way while everyone else walked in the opposite direction. Case in point: at a time when I was glomming Keanu Reeves films, I came across Ebert’s review for A Walk in the Clouds. He’d given it four stars out of four; Rotten Tomatoes has an aggregate score of 42%. Most of the world thought it was one big pile of mush, and that Keanu Reeves was a fantastically bad actor. Ebert called his performance “almost transparent”, the “highest compliment I can pay it”, and said the film “sang with innocence and trust”:

”A Walk in the Clouds” is the kind of film you have to give yourself to, open yourself to. Logic and cynicism will get you nowhere with this one. Oh, it will show you’re tough, and can’t be fooled, and no one can slip these ancient romantic notions past you. But if you can resist the scene where he sings beneath her window, then for you I offer this wish, that no one ever sing beneath your window. Even if sometimes you find yourself listening.

And there, in a nutshell, is why I loved Roger Ebert’s reviews, and why I cried when I saw that he’d died. Even though this paragraph skewers the film’s detractors with a five-year-old’s nose-thumbing, he spoke to directly to us. He spends the review defending his four stars, and after I’d seen the movie I could see his point of view, even though I thought Keanu Reeves was fantastically stilted. He is also unashamedly, unflinchingly romantic in the best and truest sense of the word – someone who is imbued with lifelong hope and resilience.

Roger Ebert was honest, and his writing could be absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. Reading his reviews made me a better reviewer – I read his reviews, and thought, Well gee, here is someone who defies all the rules of reviewing. He doesn’t always start with a synopsis. He doesn’t dissect the characters, plot, setting, and other elements like a checklist. Sometimes I don’t even know what the damn thing is about. But I can understand every word he wrote. He provides reasons to his responses. And he cares, so much, about the film, his writing, and the filmgoing world.

So thank you, Roger Ebert. For demystifying movie reviews and making average schlubs realize they can voice their cinematic opinions against the likes of Pauline Kael and Janet Maslin. For being a big voice that stood against other opinions. For being an unashamed romantic. And most of all, for caring.

– Jean Wan

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6 Responses to “Thank You, Roger Ebert”

  1. maggie b. says:

    I enjoyed reading his reviews too. He had a way of expressing his opinion that both made sense and showed intelligence and insight. He will be missed.

  2. AARJenna says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a great guy. Being from Chicago, Ebert is a home town hero and will be missed. I especially appreciated the courage that he showed in refusing to shut himself off from the public after he’d undergone his surgeries to deal with his thyroid cancer.

    Funny story – when my husband and I were first married and living in the city (Chicago), my husband would get his hair cut at the local Super Cuts as we didn’t have big bucks to spend on fancy barbers. One day he sat down in the hairstylist’s chair and sitting in the chair next to him was none other than Roger Ebert! They didn’t chat, but it’s always been a laugh for us thinking that Ebert was pretty down home to get his hair cut at Super Cuts!

    As far as his reviews, I confess that I often got frustrated with Ebert because he’d get an aspect of the movie wrong, which worried me that he hadn’t paid close attention. But I’m sure that watching that many movies and doing that many reviews allows him some latitude. His review was always top of my list when checking out if I should catch a particular film or not. There won’t be anyone who can ever fill his shoes. RIP, Roger.

  3. LeeB. says:

    Grew up reading his columns in the Sun-Times and of course watched him sparring with Gene Siskel on tv. I distinctly remember when they reviewed Field of Dreams and how sad and disappointed he was with his cohort when Mr. Siskel just “didn’t get” the movie.

  4. Anne says:

    Oh, I have such fond memories of watching Siskel and Ebert. I loved to watch them spar, whether they agreed or disagreed with each other. And his is the first review I would read of a movie. You’re right – his reviews were straightforward, honest, easy to read – they made sense, you know? He didn’t talk down to his readers as if he was the Big Time Movie Critic and the rest of us were just the Masses. I will miss his reviews so much.

  5. Blackjack1 says:

    Ebert was a lovely writer and used the written word expertly by applying it to a visual art form. Movie reviewing is somewhat subjective, as is all grading and judging, but as with grading and judging, movie reviewing is not _entirely_ subjective. There are artistic elements that critics of film study and analyze, and there is a knowledge of the art form itself that comes through in his writing as he uses his knowledge to compose a thoughtful and critical review. These elements are often invisible to the amateur eye but it’s an important part of what makes reviewing challenging. I may not have always agreed with his assessments. In fact, Richard Roeper writes elegantly as well and tends to produce reviews more aligned with my tastes, but Ebert always wrote reviews worth reading and reflecting upon. I will miss his writing tremendously. I have his three Greatest Movie books and keep them in my nightstand. They are wonderful reading!

  6. Corie says:

    I too cried a bit when I heard of his passing. I read Ebert’s review not to get a recommendation of what films to watch but just to read something that’s written so well and from the heart. His blog about his wife and the one about being an Anglophile and touring London was so eloquent, and poetic, and romantic….and real :)
    Ebert didn’t need to use big words or elaborate film lingo, but you always get the essence of his reviews. And like you, I don’t always agree with his reviews…but it’s okay, because I know I’m not just a cog in the wheel…I can think for myself. So, I know it’s probably cliche, but a thumbs up to you, Mr Ebert!