It’s very occasional that I’ll hear about the death of a celebrity and be moved by it. It’s difficult to be too bummed about someone you’ve never met. Like the death of anyone, they have to touch your heart in some way, make you laugh or cry or whatever.
In the case of Roger Ebert, he taught me that you can review a movie and make that review your own. He’s the reason I write reviews.
Until then, the only reviews I ever saw were in the free Blockbuster magazines, which were the definitions of sycophancy. The popcorn reviewers were transparently being paid (I recognised this even as a twelve year old) to sell DVD rentals, not give an accurate assessment of the films or videogames displayed therein. I read them out of boredom.
My alternative was the TV Guide, and even then, the only reviews with any character were the ones where the reviewer hated the film, giving it one star (“Rotten”) or two, and I scoured them to get a sense of what actually pushed the reviewer’s buttons to force out something reasonably comical and entertaining.
Then along came Ebert.
Roger Ebert’s power as a reviewer was that he loved film. He loved it so much that when a studio tried to pull a swifty on him, he would make them pay. It was impressive that a reviewer could have that kind of power, to turn around to Hollywood itself and say, “yeah, I’m not buying it guys,” and people would listen. Every single one of his reviews was filled with that considered, intellectual slant wherein his own opinions of the film were counterbalanced by a lifetime of film studies and objective journalism that would allow him to assess films, not simply pass judgment on them.
I remember flicking through “Your Movie Sucks”, and landing on his review of Death To Smoochy (2002), the dark comedy by Danny De Vito about a disturbing criminal underbelly of kid’s shows. He proceeded to tear the film to pieces, explaining in detail why he hated it, and I laughed the entire time, agreeing with his points, despite the fact that Death To Smoochy is an unironic personal favourite of mine. Ultimately, I loved the film for the same reasons he hated it, and I was okay with that, because he was able to eloquently defend his position in a thoroughly entertaining and agreeable manner.
Since then I have striven to do the same in my own reviews, treating them more as analyses than personal opinion soap-boxes, and always bringing my film knowledge to the table rather than simply my inexplicable gut reactions. I have become a more critical thinker, more fair in my judgments, and more careful in what I like and what I don’t like, and I enjoy films as a medium now substantially more because of it.
That is the effect Roger Ebert had on my life, and hearing of his death brought me a sharp pang of remorse. He will be sorely missed, but the good news is, the damage is done. His star is on the Hollywood walk of fame and many now take film as an art form more seriously because of Mr. Ebert’s efforts.