Thursday the world bid farewell to one of the greatest and most honored film critics: Roger Ebert. Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and was on television for 31 years. It was some of those years on television with his on air partner Gene Siskel, that I learned who Roger Ebert was. He watched 100’s of films a year and wrote and talked about them with great passion and purpose.
It was then that I wanted to be Roger Ebert when I grew up.
Of course, God had other plans for my life, and I did not become Roger Ebert. But there was something about the way Ebert would talk about movies that made me want to explore these stories. Because that’s what film is – a form of storytelling. And Ebert knew what was a good story and what was not so good. And he had the courage to tell you so. And in many cases, he could do so with the simple turn of a thumb.
I have read his reviews for years online. And in way, it has taught me how to “read” a film. I learned from Ebert that a great storyteller makes use of everything he or she has at their disposal. From the actors to the cameras, from the lightening to the soundtrack. Everything has a voice in the story. Some films do this well, and others don’t.
The most interesting reviews of Ebert’s were often the ones for films that weren’t very good at storytelling – or simply sucked. Ebert had the courage to be completely honest, not just that the film didn’t work, but why. The plot made no sense. A camera angle was all wrong. The lighting communicated one thing, while the dialogue another. All of these things mattered to Ebert, and they should matter to us – the patrons of the cinema – as well.
For those films that received his coveted 3 1/2 or 4 stars, all the voices come together to give the story meaning. A deep, rich, truth that speaks it our lives. That, Ebert taught us, is what a great film does. It speaks truth into our lives. The film becomes more than just entertainment, to connects to some deep part of ourselves and causes us to think differently about ourselves and the world around us.
But most of all, I learned from Roger Ebert to keep going, no matter what life throws at you. After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert did not give up or stop doing what he did best. He continued to write film reviews, blog, and even wrote a cook book. And even still, when losing portions of his jaw after cancer surgeries, Ebert kept going. He always seemed to have a smile. He lived his life without fear of death. He did not live in fear, but in hope. He did not let something like fear, cancer, or anything else paralyze him from the vocation he was called to.
He wrote this in his memoir, Life Itself:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
I still want to be Roger Ebert when I grow up.