Epitaph for a Titan

April 05, 2013
A thought by James Berardinelli

How would Roger Ebert like to be remembered? A Pulitzer Prize winning writer? The man who, along with co-host Gene Siskel, invented TV film criticism as we now know it? The first major journalist to embrace the Internet and all it entailed? A die-hard liberal whose support for Presidents Clinton and Obama was unflinching? The most influential reviewer of his generation, perhaps of all-time? All these things are true, but they are not what Ebert would most want people to recollect when thinking of him. Instead, he would like it said, simply and succinctly, that he was a man who loved movies and had been blessed with an opportunity to write and talk about them for nearly five decades. He lived his dream, and how many of us can say as much?

I suspected that, at some point, I would have to write this column. I dreaded it. Now, it has come upon me. As a rule, I don't write obituaries but this death could not pass without at least a few words. None of us is immortal and, as his health declined over the past years and months, it became clear that Roger Ebert wouldn't be the first to achieve that distinction. His words will live on but there will be no new ones to supplement the millions he wrote over a long, distinguished career. His final blog entry, "A Leave of Presence," , was likely written days before it was posted since, at the time of its publication (less than 48 hours before his death), he was apparently not in very good shape due to weakness and meds. Still, when he composed it, he knew the end was near. It can be read as a farewell to all his fans and readers. That makes sense. Roger would have wanted an opportunity to say goodbye. The column also includes a "bucket list" of sorts. Knowing how little time he had left, Roger set modest goals. Unfortunately, he was unable to meet even the most near-term of them.

Before I go on, here are a couple of links for those who are curious:

I wrote this piece fourteen years ago when Gene Siskel died. (It resides on the "old" portion of the site, never having been ported over.)

Three years ago, I transcribed the foreword Ebert penned for my print compilation of reviews, ReelViews.

In 2007, when Ebert made his triumphant return after a long battle with cancer and physical infirmity, I wrote a column in which I reminisced about our interaction through the years. That stands as a fitting tribute.

If one of the great human impulses is to have a lasting effect on others, then Roger Ebert achieved it. The list of those both inside and outside the world of film who have been touched by him is long and includes many high-profile names. I'm a footnote on that roster but it's a safe bet that, without Ebert's encouragement and mentoring during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I wouldn't be writing reviews today. He helped to build my self-esteem and taught me how to stand by my convictions even when they ran counter to what nearly everyone else thought.

There are many excellent critics out there, but there was only one Roger Ebert. His absence will be keenly felt. A good film review combines two elements: writing and criticism. Some reviewers are strong in the former and weak in the latter (I consider myself to be among their number). Others are weak in the latter and strong in the former. Then there are the rare ones like Ebert, whose puissance in both categories is evident. Those who regularly differed with him could find value in his reviews. The writing in and of itself was always worth reading, but he also had the ability to convey enough of a movie - any movie - so it was possible for a reader, even one who disagreed with his bottom line, to determine whether it was something they might like.

Roger didn't like sentimentality and I suspect he would have been a little surprised (pleasantly, I hope) and embarrassed by the outpouring of affection from friends and rivals alike. I guess it's often like that with death - we might view ourselves differently if we could attend our own funerals. Would we recognize ourselves in the eulogies? In the space of a day, Roger has gone from being one of the best men I know to being one of the best men I knew. It's a hard transition to absorb.

Famous people die every day. Most of the time, we pause for a moment to acknowledge their achievements then move on. We don't know them. We know what they did. With actors, we might recognize their faces and voices, but our memories of them are of the characters they played. With someone like Ebert, however, it's different. Everything he wrote - reviews, columns, blogs, interviews, tweets, etc. - was personal. He didn't hide behind an alter ego. So the sense that readers "knew" him wasn't misplaced. And that's why his death is felt so keenly by so many - not because he is "greater" or "more famous" than anyone else but because he let us get close. Even to those who never met him, he was a friend and companion.

Often, when someone dies, we're left with a shoebox of photographs to go along with our memories. In this case, Ebert has left us thousands upon thousands of snapshots - reviews that paint evocative pictures with words. And, although we'll never know what he thought of Star Trek Into Darkness or Pacific Rim or the 2014 Best Picture winner, we can peruse his opinions of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001, and 10,000 other classic and not-so-classic films. To quote a movie character, "He's not really dead as long as we remember him." A sentiment I think Roger would agree with wholeheartedly.

"Now, he belongs to the ages."