Thursday, April 4, 2013

Requiem for Roger

I always liked this book cover.
If you read movie blogs, you will read dozens of tributes to Roger Ebert in the coming days. You might even read hundreds, were you so inclined. More fortunate souls than myself will have personal encounters to relate, of chance meetings or lucky breaks that got them where they are today with Ebert's encouragement and help.

Alas, I grew up in rural South Georgia, far from Chicago and worlds away from Hollywood, but Roger Ebert found me there, too. Like so many members of my generation, I grew up with Siskel and Ebert, their thumbs up or down, their wisecracks and praise lighting up the balcony and telling me all I needed to know about movies that would probably never play in Jesup, GA. Long before I knew what literary criticism and scholarship were, their insights shaped my understanding of narrative, character, and plot. In later years I faithfully read Ebert's take on every movie I saw or considered going to see, weighing his reviews with my own evolving thoughts.

Given the way my life has turned out, Roger Ebert probably taught me more than many of my graduate professors, who thought I needed a tenure-track job to do what I wanted to do. Looking at Ebert's work, especially in the last years after his health declined, I came to understand that a writer - or a critic, of whatever kind - does not require a university or an office with a title on the door. Indeed, the great critics of the 19th century would have been perplexed at the very idea. A writer writes and finds a way to reach readers who will care. Roger Ebert could not even speak anymore, but he kept writing and embraced new ways of reaching out to readers. He was inspirational, not just in his words, but in the way he forged ahead and found ways to do what mattered the most to him.

While I'm envious of the people who met Roger Ebert, who got to shake his hand or tell him what he meant to them, I'm glad to be one of the many thousands whose lives were touched by his work and his passion for film. He had a very long reach from that balcony, and we're all the better for it.