I’m remembering well today a wthought I had a few months back. I don’t recall what, if anything prompted it but I recall thinking that when Roger Ebert died I was going to be terribly sad. Turns out I was right.
I’ve long been a person who cared about and paid attention to reviews and critics. As far back as I can recall I have looked to critics and reviews for guidance, and none more often or more intently than I did Roger. I remember as a teenager getting into arguments with family about why I cared what a critic thought about movies or music and I’d be told it wasn’t the end all, be all. And it wasn’t and isn’t but it was always the guide into what might be worth my time.
More than that though, Roger was one of the first and most prominent examples of someone who looked at culture the way I did. I can tend to be critical of all forms of culture, reflexively, in a way that sometimes rubs people wrong. Whatever it is I’m watching or reading I tend to do it with a critical eye- is this a 3 star record, a 4 star book, an A episode of TV? On some level I don’t know where or when this started but I do know that it’s people like Roger Ebert that made those thoughts seem OK, it made it actually seem like a good thing.
I’ve read plenty of memoir pieces about someone feeling an outsider and a piece of art making them feel understood but to me, understanding the arts, quantifying them, making lists, considering what this or that detail may have meant- that’s the stuff that makes art real and relevant and interesting to me. I think, pretty possibly that, when it comes to the media, to realizing that was something other people really thought about and considered was watching ‘At the Movies’ in it’s various incarnations. I feel sad to have likely seen far more Richard Roeper than Gene Siskel but all the same, I’m glad to have seen Roger.
It’s an odd thing, as well, that I’ve never really been what most would consider a film buff. I see my fair share but there are innumerable classics I’ve never laid eyes on, and yet Roger Ebert always exemplified the best of what criticism could be. As I grew older I’d read, listen to and consume reviews on so many things, from pro wrestling (which in so many ways is beloved by me for being a form that is incredibly rich with ability to be scrutinised, for whatever reason), to comic books (wherein I for years would read and consider reviews and at the peak of my fandom talk about and debate furiously on message boards) to music (where I’ve made lists of my favorite records of the year for what is coming up on nearly a decade, though the ten year old one is probably an embarrassment and also a singles, rather than album list) and finally- TV where in recent years I’ve felt endlessly drawn to watching and considering, as much of this blog and my ill-fated Mary Tyler Moore series reflected.
In all these cases, whether it was debating the merits of Spider-Man on the Bendis Board, listening to Bryan Alvarez overthink an episode of Monday Night Raw, rolling my eyes at an undeserved ***** Springsteen review in Rolling Stone or wondering how the latest episode of Parks and Rec only got a B+ on the AV Club, the sheer time, thought and effort given to understanding the world of ideas that others might find completely trivial has always not only given me joy but made me feel OK for doing the same.
With no one person was this more clear than Roger Ebert, a man who I’d view as a patron saint of criticism- a man who made his life’s work seeing, writing and talking about movies. The first place I always went, for as many years as I can think, to get perspective on not just what was in theaters but also whatever random film I had just seen was to his website at Chicago Sun-Times, where I’ve been sad to see the reviews get fewer and farther between, as the days went by.
All the same, even as his health declined and his show ceased to have him along for the ride he also became, as years went on an oddly heroic figure. Suddenly small and eventually with a face showing the horrors of cancer, he was always a chipper presence on the internet, sending out one-liners to The New Yorker and answering questions on his site about arcane subjects, and even publishing a review of Thor, then a long detailed defense of it that I gladly and interestedly read and gave long thought to. It was interesting, as always, seeing something through his lens (even if in this case he was crazily wrong- that was almost even better, his review of Fight Club is still one of the reviews I’ll remember best, even if it was wildly off-base)
He was such a figure of gleeful polarity. To embrace Roger Ebert, especially in his best known role as TV host, was to embrace well considered and well thought out argument. It is why I watched and felt a twinge of misunderstanding in the air when on CNN’s Crossfire, Jon Stewart ripped into them. For sure the show, and sucessors in different arenas like ESPN’s Pardon the Interuption, never had the panache he and Gene had but the best aspects of the idea of getting into a good, constructive argument about something that really matters to you is something I think gets lost in the conversation about what a shame it is that people are getting so angry about their opinions. They might be like assholes, but an opinion doesn’t make you one- Roger knew that.
Near the end, as cancer took it’s toll, he took on a second role for me. His public battle with the disease called easily to mind the one that had previously taken up nearly as much of my time and thought as all those reviews, my father’s losing battle with it. Through each surgery and new setback he fought against it in a way that mirrored the struggle I’d seen up close for months and years, several years back. When he lost his voice it brought to mind my father, always so talkative, struck mute by the disease. And so through it all I think I very likely saw him as a second chance to see that these things can be conquered and while both of them tried, ultimately no one suceeds forever in that battle.
Another lesson one can take from culture, when you give it thought like he did, though, is that unhappy endings aren’t always the worst thing. Once I get to the end, good or bad, I’ve always loved to read the reviews. I’d glance at the ratings and a paragraph or so before but after? Then I’d read the whole thing and get to weigh in. So far I’ve read several remembrances, obituaries and articles about him- the closest thing a life gets to a review, and while I’m taking less joy in these than most reviews, seeing the raves come in from The White House to Facebook, it’s an interesting satisfaction to see his life in review.
And so this has happened and those will keep coming in. And tomorrow I’ll tell a group of classmates what I think of their short stories drafts, probably focus a little too intently on the Hulu replays of some of my favorite sitcoms and hope that anyone who might read this gives it a thumbs-up. It’s in these ways, and myriads more as days go by that I’ll hope, in my agnostic way that I can get some approval shining down from the balcony. Regardless the reviews, though- I’m going to keep going till I get to the last of it, just like he did, and maybe, if there is something after I’ll get the pleasure of comparing notes on that too.