Roger Ebert was my first film critic —really, the first non-fiction writer of any kind whose work I devoured. My parents had Pauline Kael, but for my generation Ebert was the gateway drug to film study and appreciation, best sampled in his 1,000-page annual anthologies of reviews, which were an encyclopedic and insightful peek into the world of movies in the era of home video. He became a celebrity, along with fellow critic Gene Siskel, for lively and often contentious capsule reviews on the long-running “At the Movies” TV show, and he was inarguably the most prominent and well-known critic of the modern era.
Many Charlottesville locals also remember Ebert as a regular visitor to the Virginia Film Festival. He appeared here several times in the ’90s, conducting weekend-long, shot-by-shot workshops. Starting with Citizen Kane in 1992, Ebert and an appreciative crowd of film lovers would watch a movie, pausing every few seconds and repeating crucial scenes to discuss every aspect of a film in detail. The process was refreshingly democratic—anyone in the audience could shout out a comment or question, or ask to stop the film for clarification on a particular point, or to repeat an especially sublime moment. Watching a two-hour film took three days, but the shared insights were unforgettable.
“After not being that huge a fan of Roger Ebert as a TV film critic, I came to respect him so much during the many years he did his shot-by-shot workshops at the Virginia Film Festival,” wrote Richard Herskowitz, director of the festival from 1994 to 2008. “His teaching was masterful, not only for what he had to share, but for the way he orchestrated comments from the audience. For example, after one viewer made an intelligent comment about an aria used in Raging Bull, Ebert repeatedly stopped the tape and shouted out every time operatic music returned, ‘Hey, opera guy, what are we listening to?’”
The 1994 shot-by-shot of Pulp Fiction was a first. A discussion of a then-brand-new film; it’s considered a classic now, but it’s easy to forget the level of excitement around that film, as the independent film boom gathered steam, beginning with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape in ’89 and building towards the indie sweep in the 1997 Oscars. I was dying to see Pulp Fiction, but my parents considered it too violent for a 12-year-old. Nonetheless I did meet Ebert at a book signing at the Williams Corner Bookstore that year, and in retrospect it’s remarkable how generous and thoughtful he could be with even the smallest or most anonymous of movie lovers—he knew we were all part of the same club.
I managed to attend several more shot-by-shot workshops over the years, from Vertigo to Bonnie and Clyde. Ebert’s workshops were an exposure to different ways of looking at film. The discussions were more thorough, more thoughtful, and more open-minded than any sort of study I was used to.
As I continued to study film, I grew apart from Ebert’s criticism. Immersed in the academic study of film, his columns seemed more pedestrian and lowbrow in comparison. His various quirks and preferences as a critic occasionally began to grate. He was also, unavoidably, something of a horndog (at least in print). Ebert was, after all, a man who got his start under the tutelage of sleaze-maestro Russ Meyer, and wrote the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Many of his columns made use of the phrase “the old rumpy-pumpy,” a euphemism for sex which I still find both hopelessly old-fashioned and immensely mortifying. It often seemed as if Ebert, tiring of the same repeating trends in mainstream cinema, was reviewing films solely on the basis of his sexual attraction to the lead actress.
Though I often disagreed or found his reviews superficial or trite, I continued to read them, more out of habit than devotion. Even after the 1999 death of Gene Siskel, the existence of Ebert and his reviews seemed immortal, a voice we would always have in our newspapers and in the back of our minds.
His cancer changed all that. First diagnosed in 2002, his health problems worsened until emergency surgery and a partial jaw-bone removal left him unable to eat or speak, a significant blow to a man known mainly for his opinions and his appetite.
For many this would be the beginning of the end, but for Ebert is seemed to provide a jolt of urgency and energy. Without physical speech, he wrote more than ever, keeping up a constant stream of reviews that shamed most of his peers, and blogging restlessly and insightfully on topics as varied as politics, religion, video games, science, education, his childhood, and his membership in AA. His writing regained sharpness and purpose, earning him a new generation of readers, as well as cementing his importance as a writer and critic.
But his impact wasn’t truly felt until Ebert passed away this month, finally succumbing to cancer at the age of 70. There was a tremendous outpouring of appreciation from everyone I knew. Even the most cynical or avant-garde of outsiders shared a deep appreciation for Ebert’s legacy, not just as a writer but as an enthusiast and ambassador.
He opened the doors for so many of us. Few would have cited him as their favorite writer, and we certainly may not always have agreed with him, but for so many of us, Ebert was the biggest, and the first. We’ll miss you, Roger.
Share your favorite memory of Roger Ebert with us below.