For as long as I can remember following movies, I remember following Roger Ebert.
I remember looking forward to watching every episode of “Siskel & Ebert” as a kid. I remember the “Siskel & Ebert” episode of “The Critic,” a show that wouldn’t have existed without Ebert and his friend from the Tribune, Gene Siskel. I remember being a student and film critic at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—the alma mater of the Urbana native and Chicago Sun-Times critic, who died Thursday at the age of 70—and conducting an email interview with the Pulitzer Prize winner and feeling unbelievably excited about receiving the correspondence.
When you’re young (or old) and enamored by movies, both in what they mean to you and what goes into breaking them down and arguing about them, Roger Ebert is a celebrity.
Of course, Roger’s success—I was on a first-name basis with him only to the extent that I said “Hi, Roger” at screenings, to which illness claiming his speaking ability made him unable to respond—meant that he was a familiar face to everyone.
He was beloved to the people in the seats and the people on the screen. It’s nothing short of staggering to consider what it takes to become the icon for a profession, and while Roger wasn’t the first major film critic, he made a name for himself through reviews whose level of depth and information never got in the way of their conversational tone.
Movies are inherently subjective, and no good critic should hold back from his or her opinion. Roger didn’t. He was always located inside his reviews, be it via a tangent touching on a personal experience of which a film reminded him or simply in his voice, applying passion and, when necessary, extreme distaste.
To the young movie fans who grew up watching and reading him, he made the concept of experiencing and processing movies for a living a legitimate, if admittedly illogical, career path. I owe him much gratitude for doing so much to validate the role I have been lucky enough to hold at RedEye for my entire professional life.
From time to time, I quote something Roger once said about how movies aren’t about what they’re about but the way they are about them. It’s a great, undeniably true line. Brilliant movies are made about unexpected topics (“Boogie Nights” comes to mind), and terrible ones are made about extremely relevant topics (“World Trade Center”).
As a critic, professional or amateur, there should be no fear in expressing what you think, regardless of what anyone else says—while also hungrily seeking out strong voices like Roger Ebert to help shape your understanding of movies and how to interact with others who love them too.
I didn’t always agree with Roger Ebert, but I never stopped reading him. The city of Chicago and the world of movies won’t be the same without him.
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