When I was a teenager, there was the massive tome Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion. It made me want to see Taxi Driver, and Casablanca, and The Godfather, and It Happened One Night; not because it seemed like you had to if you wanted to claim to like “great” movies, but because he made them sound like gifts, terrific and powerful. He wrote about movies in the way that he had a singular gift for – he made you want to see them because they were just so good, and knew how to express it in a way that wasn’t ever elitist, but was never pandering.
Ebert could talk to everyone, yes, but he wasn’t dumbing himself down, he just knew how to articulate his views so beautifully and honestly. And so I combed through Movie Home Companion. And I found more movies, and more, and more. I, and so very many like me, would comb through the stranger sounding films, trying to figure out where to find them; wanting in on the fun, on the conversation. And this only continued with his later collections.
I certainly didn’t always agree with him – I don’t think most people did all the time – but you could never deny what he said, really. That was the beauty of how he wrote about movies: he didn’t claim to offer the final word. He loved them, and he told you what he saw, and what he felt. It was sincere, elegant and infused with life.
He was certainly not afraid to dislike a movie; his terrific collections Your Movie Sucks, and I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie make that abundantly clear. But he loved movies, and God damn if that didn’t come through in every single review the man wrote in all those years, including the negative ones.
It is staggering to think that he never burned out. Staggering. To see that many films, to see that many bad films and still convey the sense that if you saw him and wanted to talk about a movie with him that he’d be happy to. Listen to his commentary track on Citizen Kane or Casablanca, and it’s an education, a conversation, and a celebration.
He watched movies for what they attempted to do. A noble failure was always better than a tepid, safe success. When I wrote film reviews for my college paper (and don’t get me wrong, most of those reviews are best forgotten), I tried to adapt the same philosophy; I tried to do what he does and saw how hard it was, but it continued to shape how I saw, and evaluated, movies.
I love movies, and Ebert did for me what he did for so many people – he guided me to them with joy and wit and modesty. He is, of course, hardly the only critic I look at, but I feel like I owe him so much. His passing saddens me deeply. And I will remember what he gave me every time – every single time – I want to know what someone I trust thought of a film, or want to find something new.