Monday, April 8, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert, Beloved Film Critic and a Personal Hero

There aren't enough words to describe what the passing of Roger Ebert made me feel. I found out in the final minutes of my lunch break at work, thanks to some fellow film bloggers on twitter. My twitter was overrun with condolences and grievances, and my heart sunk. I couldn't believe it, I didn't want to believe it. Roger Ebert, this brave and wonderful man, who had been publicly fighting cancer over the past few years, had seemed so strong in his final days. His final blog post, just two days, prior said he was going to be taking a "leave of presence", where he would take the time to review the films he wanted to review, while focusing on new things, including a new site, while fighting his resurgence of cancer. Some days would be better than others, some where he'd talk about what it's like to fight these things, and other days where he'd just geek out hard over a great film he just saw. He seemed in such high spirits, and in closing, he left this final note, which as beautiful as it was then, seems even sadder and more prophetic now:
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.
I'm not sure if he knew this would be his final piece, but those closing words now make me choke up and bring tears to eyes. The man who made me want to work to become a film critic, and helped me completely embrace my love for film had sadly passed away.

Back in the stone age of the internet, when dial-up modems rained supreme, my parents hadn't decided to move to the high speed internet yet. So for a young kid, it meant that there really wasn't too much too do on the internet. Around this time, my love for cinema and movies grew, thanks to a healthy dose of classic Hollywood fare, with a quite a few cinema outings a month with the family. Maybe my parents shouldn't have taken a six year old to see 'The Rock', but hey, I wasn't complaining. But all the times I wasn't doing homework or re-watching my VHS copy of 'Back to the Future', I was sitting on the website for 'At the Movies', a site dedicated to Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's TV show where they reviewed films. The site had many of their oldest episodes up, and you could either watch them or listen to them, so you can imagine with dial up internet, I was sitting listening to reviews instead of watching them. I'd stay up until odd hours of the night, with headphones plugged into the computer, listening as Siskel and Ebert would banter back and forth about what they liked or disliked about films, sometimes vehemently so, but not in a malicious way, but more in a brotherly way.

Of course, because of my infatuation with listening to them, I got many complaints from my parents about friends trying to call the house and getting a busy signal, since I was clogging the phone lines listening to these two men talk about film. Didn't they understand it was for the love of cinema that I was doing this? Frankly, I figured they should have been happy that this is what I was spending my time doing, not looking up other things on the internet. The "Two Thumbs" system quickly became my standard for choosing films I wanted to see, and even at a young age Siskel and Ebert were my go to guys to tell me what films to watch. When Gene Siskel died, I wasn't sure what was going to happen to 'At the Movies', but Ebert made sure that the show would keep going. He knew we needed his opinion on film, and he'd make sure we have it. I loved the Ebert an Roper years. These were the years I'd set my VCR to record their late night episodes, and then watch them early the next morning. The more I watched these new episodes, and continued going through the archives on the website to listen to the older reviews, it quickly became clear to me that I was listening not because of Siskel and Roper, both exceptional critics in their own right, but because of Ebert. The way he talked about film was captivating, and he made me realize that it was ok to like movies. In fact, it was ok to absolutely LOVE movies, and that I shouldn't be ashamed of it, and that I needed to embrace it, use it, and learn from it. This began to change my life, and my outlook, forever.

Throughout middle school and high school, I'd start writing movie reviews for extra credits in classes, on myspace and facebook, and anywhere anyone would let me post one. I loved movies, and I wanted to be heard just like Ebert was. I wanted people to know what I felt about movies, whether they wanted to listen or not. I'd spend hours endlessly reading Ebert's books, going on the Chicago Tribune site and reading old archived reviews of his, just to see what he thought of films, and if our opinions lined up or not. At that point, my parents were really happy we had finally moved over to a high speed internet that didn't tie up the phone lines, because the older I got, the more time I spent on the computer researching and taking in Ebert's thoughts and words. For me, the experience was nothing short of wonderful and magical, and it helped me learn to discover and love so many films I probably wouldn't have seen at that age, all because I spent so much time wanting to learn and be like Ebert. This man lived my dream every day, and he was so much like me, it seemed.

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, but after the first surgery, and while undergoing all his rehab, he still stayed dedicated to the arts he loved so much. But in 2006, the unthinkable happened, and Ebert lost his voice. It was a devastating blow to the film community, and I wasn't sure how this would change his reviews. It felt like I was losing a mentor. But it didn't stop Ebert from writing about what he loved, and thanks to the internet, it seemed that Ebert had become even louder and more vocal than ever. Thanks to his blog and social networking, Ebert's film reviews, views, and opinions began reaching an even bigger audience than ever before, and it seemed that not even the loss of his voice could keep him down. It was so remarkable, and he seemed so incredibly strong. Even when many thought he would be down and out, he rose to the challenge and accepted the hand that life had dealt him, and did what he could to make it work. His passion for film never died out, and it was an amazing site to behold. As the years went on, I never thought that his sickness would get the best of him, but sadly, on April 4, 2013, at the age of 70, he finally succumbed to the cancer he'd been fighting for so many years. It shattered my heart into a million pieces, and I fought back tears in the work area, because this extraordinary man, and my hero, had died.

This will be one of many obituaries and remembrances online after the passing of this legendary, and incredible, man. His power, influence, and reach is far greater than many of us probably know, and I can't thank him enough for showing me that it was ok to embrace my passion for film, and to try to use to my advantage. It's because of him that I've chosen to pursue this life path, and I hope to one day become a full fledged film critic on a weekly basis, not just when I have the time, or when I receive a copy of a film to review on blu-ray or DVD. I'm working my way up to do do that, and I'd want nothing more than to make him proud, even if he never knew me. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Roger Ebert, for what you did for me. Thank you for all the wonderful reviews, thoughts, and insanely wonderful insights you gave us all. Your presence in the film community will never be forgotten, and I hope that film critics will continue to do well to uphold the standards you set. I know that I'll try. Thank you for including me on your journey to the movies, and I'll always have an empty seat next to me in honor of you. Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert.

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