Friday, April 5, 2013

A Few Words About Roger Ebert

Editor's note: During the Dallas International Film Festival, Jonesy and I are getting some help from other critics with extra reviews. Our friend Zedric is one of them, and while we wish it was for a happier occasion, he wrote this tribute as his first post:  

This week started out very promising. In just a few days – thanks to the largesse this blogs’ creators – I would be attending my first Dallas International Film Festival. I perused the DIFF movie agenda with great zeal, already writing tiny reviews in my head. There was the press party on Wednesday, followed by an endless buffet of movies to gorge on for the next nine days. I felt like a pill-headed Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool of Oxycontin. For years, I read about Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride, and the iconic films that emerged and read accounts of how it felt to be one of a select few to have seen a great film before it reached the masses. And now, I had an invitation to the cinema speakeasy!

Then I heard the news that my favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, was taking a “leave of presence” due to cancer recurrence. He wasn’t going away, just slowing down. A few weeks ago I wondered how Roger was doing. His voracity on Twitter had slowed considerably. But I knew he would make it through. Roger had battled cancer since 2002, and it had figuratively made him stronger. After he lost his ability to speak (and eat), he did what a true writer does - he wrote. He didn’t limit himself to just film reviews. Ebert’s journal included interviews with actors, essays on politics and illness; he even blogged about a past love: food. He was still at the top of his writing game, so much so that you almost forgot that he was a man missing part of his jaw, using a computer to tell his wife he loved her, and consuming food through a tube. Roger was going to beat it.

I heard of his death on the radio while at work and I felt blindsinded. Damn cancer.

It was the opening night of DIFF, and the greatest reviewer of our time was gone. My anticipation was sullied a bit. I ran to Twitter and read heartfelt tweets from the many saddened by the loss of this man. Film critics and writers of various mediums wrote their own tributes. Beyond the obvious – great writer, loved movies, loved food – there were countless anecdotes about his generosity, candor, and love of humanity. It’s a rare thing when a celebrity is celebrated for being a good, genuine person.

I’m not a reviewer or critic, at least not professionally, but I’ve always enjoyed movies, and my love intensified circa 1999. Before then, I knew of Ebert as the portly guy who always argued with the skinny bald guy on that movie show that came on Saturday night. I did a play in high school, which quickly led to an intense interest in films, and from there just like others, I wanted to become an actor. I began viewing the work of my favorite actors, studying them. This led to me reading their reviews of their films, which of course, led me to Ebert. was the first site I ever bookmarked on the internet. Under ‘External Reviews’, the link to Ebert’s Sun-Times online column was the first listed. He was the only film critic I even remotely knew, so naturally, I started reading him (Siskel had already passed). His reviews were like a good one-sided conversation. Good or bad, he wrote with passion. Four star reviews got raves not for just the great acting and cinematography, but because of their ability to transcend. And the one stars (or in the case of “Life of David Gale”, zero stars), took a beating, but it wasn’t just some angry critic bitching because he didn’t like the movie. His lower reviews were just as passionate as the others, because he knew the director or screenwriter had the capacity to do better. It was the most genuine constructive criticism I had ever read.

Reading Ebert on Friday morning became perfunctory after that. He was my literary breakfast. It was easy to like him since I noticed we had similar tastes, but I truly appreciated him when we didn’t. Whether or not you agreed with him wasn’t the point. And his reviews were never the same format. Some would be filled with synopsis, while others included nostalgic, personal tales. I would read other sites. Even had a brief interest it AICN. But they just weren’t the same.

My one true interaction with Roger came via email. I read his 3 star review of Kurt Wimmer’s “Equilibrium”, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale. In the review, he quoted Nick Nunziata from about the martial art used in the film called “gymkata”. I was also a frequent visitor of and recalled the actual quote being “Gun-kata”. As he always encouraged his reader to do, I emailed him and mentioned the error. It was odd emailing a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and basically calling out both him and his editor. But as he did with most of his emails, regardless of its sender, he responded: "Good catch. I’ll make the correction.  RE"

Those two sentences put me on cloud 9. I showed my dorm mates who couldn’t give a shit. The email remained in my AOL account for over a year until it somehow got lost. Thanks AOL!

In reading all the comments from commenters with heavy hearts like mine, they all had similar experiences. He cared about people. And while it was surprising at first, it’s something I had read about before. There’s the story of him persuading a young, local TV personality in Chicago that she should syndicate her show. This led to “you get a car, and you get a car… everyone gets cars!” He has always championed and paid it forward for other writers. Go to and its filled with reviews from critics with different perspectives. He would often tweet to his 800K followers’ links other people’s work. He was as altruistic as it gets.

When I think about the passing of Roger Ebert, I immediately think of his wonderful wife and champion, Chaz. They say behind every great man, is a great woman. Though I can sometimes be a cynic who doesn’t believe in love, hearing Roger speak of his wife always made me change my mind. The 20th wedding anniversary journal he wrote about his wife was eloquent and beautiful, but also very personal and real. Maybe that’s why I woke up this morning, read more Ebert tributes, and began sobbing. I never met Roger Ebert, but he felt so real to me. Every Friday for the last 13 years has been like a private conversation with a friend about movies. I’m gonna miss that.

As an example of his amazing writing, here is one of my favorite Ebert reviews:


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