I’m about halfway through the bottle of wine. I promised myself that when I went the solo route with blogging that I would attempt to make it more personal, and when the news broke about the death of Roger Ebert earlier today, I knew I’d either have to fulfill that promise or slink back into homework for grad school.
This bottle of Zinfandel says, and I quote, “fuck grad school.”
The problem with a celebrity’s death is that it leads to an enormous amount of self serving. I hate that, that attempt to make someone else’s tragedy personal, and, most often in my opinion, profit from it, is wholly despicable. I will not promote this blog post on Twitter. If asked about it, I will not acknowledge this exists. I wrote this blog post because I had the urgent desire to vomit words into a web browser to satiate some immediate need that I have yet to pinpoint.
Here’s what I want to say (I think, I hope):
I didn’t used to like movies, believe it or not. I thought they were amusing, fun, whatever. My parents, who adore Groucho Marx and Errol Flynn, helped to get me a job at a videostore when I was 16 where this opinion hardly budged. Keep in mind, this videostore had one (1) foreign film with subtitles, and at the time I simply thought that that was a fluke. I reviewed movies for my high school newspaper, and still found a great deal of trouble in figuring out what all of the fuss was about.
My parents picked up Roger Ebert’s Video Yearbook for the year 2000 and this changed. All of it. Reading the man’s words, seeing how he played with descriptions and plots and philosophy all in the context of describing a film, and I was slack jawed. The only thing I remember about my senior year of high school, besides some very embarrassing foreplay, is visiting Ebert’s site every single Friday, often refreshing it constantly until the new reviews arrived. I still remember printing off copies of his Freddy Got Fingered review and pinning them up on my corkboard in my bedroom. That is how you write.
Slowly (and perhaps too slowly) my thoughts turned away from being a humor columnist (I used to be funny once, when I wanted to be) and towards that of a film critic. I went out of state for college, aiming to be a journalist. The problem was that I was always practical; I couldn’t sit on that moral grey line that the school demanded, and became disgusted as I began to believe that many of my classmates were in it to simply be the next pretty young anchor on the local news. What’s the point of writing, of being, if it doesn’t say something?
I wrote film reviews through my first two years of college for one of the campus papers, during that time picking up Ebert’s I Hated Hated Hated This Movie and practically committing it to memory. I could be wrong, but if you started reading his review of Gymkata out loud I’m sure I could probably finish it.
But all of that was put that on hold after I gave up on journalism. I went back to my interests in history and teaching, moving back to small town Illinois, a bit wiser and smarter. I’d finally sat down and watched 8 1/2 at his bequest and marveled at fucking Rashomon. Rashomon made me into who I am, and Ebert was the one who pointed to it.
Now a lot of obituaries I’ve read today, either from the AV Club or Slate, talk about what an influence Ebert was on them. They knew him, smelled him, touched him. But those writers were bolder than me. I chickened out before I ever attempted to make film criticism a career, and wasted my mid-20s on a great deal of apathy.
At best, though, I also wasted it on a great deal of film: at a different videostore, I gobbled through the classics, cult classics, and the forgotten. The store had a copy of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on VHS that was signed by Ebert. I was often proud to put it on my ‘Staff Selections’ row.
Ebertfest was held about an hour from the Central Illinois town I grew up in, and I only ever made that trip once to go see Beyond at a very special show. You may ask why, but let’s be honest: how many times are you going to get a chance to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on the big screen? I knew it was something special.
From the stage at the Virgina Theatre, he waved, from what I remember, but this was right after the cancer. There’d been a lot made of his new computer voice, but he didn’t take advantage of it for this show. I wanted to find him afterward and say thank you; somehow email or even a letter had never occurred to me. I think I saw him off to the side, surrounded by fans, and decided to leave him alone; the curse of Midwestern politeness.
Ebert endured, and will. I eventually started a film blog with a friend, both of us eager to discover something akin to his legacy. I eventually moved onto other critics– Mick LaSalle and A.O. Scott are my current favorites– but even if I wasn’t reading him on a weekly basis, Ebert’s influence never seemed to dim.
There was something I read by him once, where he was asked about the man he most admired. “Werner Herzog,” he replied. “Because every single day he gets up and does exactly what he wants to do. He leads the life he wants to lead.”
This sticks with me because, frankly, that was never me. I’ve always been practical, to a fault, never wanting to risk failure. I live life safely; I don’t think Ebert ever thought about his life like that. My job today makes me a certain amount of money, but it betrays my passion. If I could spend every day expounding about Pre-Code films on this blog, I’d be a content man.
Ebert’s death feels empty to me because the man himself is perpetual. Even if he isn’t writing about new films, he has a body of work that isn’t just intimidating, but is wholly unique. No writer I’ve read has made me see how age and time passes like Ebert. In his age, he understood that time continues, the world moves on. He’d gone from the 70s to now, and seen how the strangeness of the current media landscape had emerged over his lifetime. He’d written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and seen the world evolve unto Safety Not Guaranteed. We must keep up with being old.
And it’s not just his film reviews. Reading about his experiences in London, of Paris, of Berlin, he was a man who lived out loud and at the same time lived so harmoniously at a world that changed significantly. His great wisdom was in being empathic in all things, in understanding that life was too short to prosecute others for their differences. That is what I eventually grew to admire more than any film review.
Ebert taught me that there’s a life worth living where you follow your dreams. If even I don’t follow that mantra, I understand the world and myself better than I ever would have without his wonderful writing. There’s so much out there; why close yourself off to any of it?
It is very important to note that usually I am a Merlot man, but the Zinfandel was all that was available. Also: Ebert was a former alcoholic and certainly would disapprove of my drunken blogging. But I won’t tell if you won’t.