From One Row Back: On Roger Ebert and Loving Movies

From One Row Back: On Roger Ebert and Loving Movies

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

That Roger Ebert's film criticism inspired me to follow a similar path goes without saying. Anyone who eats off talking about movies has undoubtedly spent the last 20-some-odd hours rereading the man's reviews, watching old clips of Siskel & Ebert (his beloved TV program with close friend and colleague Gene Siskel) on YouTube, or simply reflecting on the countless ways the larger-than-life figure simultaneously influenced and inspired them.

What's been going through my head, though, is one aspect of Roger Ebert's life that I hope will be celebrated just as much as his body of work: his bravery.

There's only one reason to write about movies for a living: because you genuinely adore it. The thought of spending any day's hours doing anything else sickens you. Envisioning yourself seated inside a screening room with the lights off, as a new cinematic experience gets underway, is a joyous sensation that's second to none. In those moments, all of life's other problems fade to black. It's just you, the big screen, and the story being told. Never losing sight of that transformative feeling is crucial in this profession—it's not like the money's all that incredible. Yes, there are dollars to be made, but the chances of an online-specific, blogger-turned-critic depositing six figures into his or her bank account is a fantasy even the great George R.R. Martin couldn't imagine.

Yet—despite the (hopefully) reasonable income and comments sections crowded by people whose only purpose on the Internet is to berate others from the safety of a screen name—the love never dissipates. Even if you're writing movie reviews for a website as wide-spreading and content-heavy as, say, Complex, where the most painstakingly written analysis will often get buried under more broadly enticing lists and GIF galleries. Those are the breaks. Live with them or get broken by them.

You do it for the love. Knowing that hundreds of people took the time to read through your thoughts on something is humbling and invigorating. Beyond that, I do what I do because of Roger Ebert. When I was in grade school, growing up in suburban New Jersey, I rushed downstairs to grab the Bergen County, NJ, newspaper, The Record, every Friday morning just to read every word of Roger Ebert's movie reviews, which were published via print syndication directly from his Chicago Sun-Times operational base. Even if I ultimately disagreed with his sentiments (after all, I've been a horror fan all of my life, and it's no secret that Ebert didn't always take kindly to horror for horror's sake), I admired the ridiculously knowledgeable and well-expressed ways that he eviscerated movies that I enjoyed. And, boy, could Roger Ebert lay the written smackdown on films he despised.

The act of reading a Roger Ebert movie review, at least for me, always brought forth the same inner dialogue: "If I can somehow generate even the smallest fraction of this man's talent, and articulate my own views with a shred of his eloquence, humor, and scholarly charm, I'll be happy." The reality, though, is that I'll never match up to Roger Ebert, nor will any of my peers, and I'm totally fine with that. Hopefully they are too. And if they're seeing upwards of 15 new movies a month and writing about each and every one of them to some degree, they're hopefully doing it because it's all they had ever wanted to do. Nothing—not financial woes, not low page-view tallies, not some comments section goon—will stop you.

Roger Ebert understood that better than anyone—in ways, of course, that make any of the aforementioned qualms seem embarrassingly small. For him, it was a debilitating illness that he endured in the name of his preferred means of self-expression. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer back in 2002, the world's best living movie critic could have easily shut his computer down for good and went into a medically induced retirement, and nobody would've questioned the move. Unable to speak, among other cancer-related damage, Ebert never let the sickness deter him from what he liked doing best: writing about movies, which he did successfully for 46 years as the chief film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. In his indispensable 2011 memoir, Life Itself, Ebert walked readers through his entire life with earnestness and candor. The book's final chapters address his efforts to continue life while battling against cancer; his words are revelatory, candid, and harrowing:

I'm stuck with this and there's no fix. I'm fortunate that I'm a writer and can express myself that way, but in a meeting or a group conversation I'm always behind. I want to contribute and people want me to, but it just doesn't work. In the back of my mind there's the hope that maybe somebody with a bright idea will pop out of the woodwork and give me a solution. Not in my lifetime. I began to find some measure when I finally accepted that I would never speak again, and that was that.

He goes on to write about how on three separate occasions he underwent surgery to potentially give him back even the slightest bits of speech, but to no avail, and how each surgery removed pieces of flesh "to attach spare parts." Take a second to imagine going through all of that—I don't know about you, but the last thing I'd want to do is trek out to the local screening room to see the latest dumb-ass Hollywood comedy starring the likes of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. The urge to stay home, indoors and away from people who'd look upon my disfigured face, would be overwhelming. It'd very likely put me into the kind of depression that doesn't allow for the open and earnest perspective you find in all of Ebert's writing.

Roger Ebert was too strong-willed of a man to ever go out like that. Last year alone, by his own count, he wrote 306 movie reviews.

Later in Life Itself:

I've written before about how I've come to terms with my current appearance. The best thing that happened to me was a full-page spread in Esquire, showing exactly how I look today. No point in denying it. No way to hide it. Better for it to be out there. You don't like it, that's your problem. I'm happy I don't look worse. I made a simple decision just to get on with life. I was a writer, and so I was lucky. I wrote, therefore I lived. Another surgical attempt was proposed, but I said no. Enough is enough. I will look the way I look, and express myself in print, and I will be content.

And that's exactly how Roger Ebert went about life until yesterday, when he passed away at the age of 70. Earlier this week, when news circulated that a recent hip fracture revealed cancer, and that he's been receiving radiation treatment, he handled the negative situation in the only way possible: He wrote about it. From his equally enriching and heartbreaking "A Leave of Presence":

I must slow down now, which is why I'm taking what I like to call "a leave of presence." What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

And in closing "A Leave of Presence," Roger Ebert wrote what, profoundly, will live on forever as his final words. They couldn't have been more perfect:

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

And that's where you'll see me and every other person who can't picture his or herself living happily without being able to talk about cinema via the written word. As for myself, I wouldn't dare to try and fill Mr. Ebert's seat in this theater. I'll be in the next row, nestled into the seat directly behind his, always looking in his direction for inspiration.

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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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