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Roger Ebert (1942-2013): In Memoriam

Today, the world lost a great man, and I lost a hero.

When one of your heroes dies, you don’t find yourself combing over his biography, his accomplishments, or his beliefs. You find yourself combing over your own life, finding the countless ways that your hero has shaped who you were, who you are, who you are becoming.

For the ways in which he’s shaped who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming, I am eternally thankful for Roger Ebert.

****

I have so many early memories stemming from movies.

I recall singing along to Disney musicals on VHS with my siblings.
I recall the first movie that scared me: The Little Mermaid (Ursula… *shudder*).
I recall watching Marx Brothers movies with my dad, and while I didn’t understand the wit, I understood the slapstick– and most importantly, I understood that it made my dad laugh. I dressed up as Groucho for Halloween.
I recall watching Tom Sawyer in fourth grade, and Injun Joe so unsettled me that I had to leave the class room, and a cute girl in class came out and held my hand to make me feel better.
I recall watching monster movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my brother on the Sci-Fi Channel. I used to tape MST3K onto blank VHS tapes if I knew I’d be busy that day so I could watch them later.
I recall my first PG-13 movie: Tremors.
I recall my first PG-13 movie in theaters: Batman Forever. I dressed up as Riddler for Halloween.
I recall the first summer my dad agreed to take me to the big PG-13 summer blockbusters: Twister, Mission: Impossible, Independence Day. My summers to this day have never been the same since.

I loved movies. But much like a teenager who utters the words “I love you” to a significant other for the first time, I had no idea what love really meant. Not until I started reading Roger Ebert.

****

When I was a freshman in high school, I read Roger Ebert’s review of American Beauty… or perhaps I saw him talk about it on At The Movies on TV, I can’t recall. Everything about his description fascinated me. I knew nothing about the film— I didn’t even know who Kevin Spacey was (although I’m positive I’d seen him in Iron Will). I also knew it was rated R, and I wasn’t allowed to see it. I told my parents I was seeing The Sixth Sense, and snuck in with a friend to see American Beauty. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen to that point. It was full of drama… but it wasn’t boring the way I’d grown up thinking dramas were. In fact, it was funny. These people were doing detestable things… but I recognized them! I knew these people: the kids went to my school, the adults went to my church.

I recall the first time I got emotional at a film. When Mena Suvari asks Kevin Spacey “how are you?” toward the end of American Beauty, and he looks bewildered and says, “It’s been a long time since anybody asked me that.” He then softly smiles and looks up at her, and reassuringly states, “… I’m great.” You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for days.

I went back and watched American Beauty three more times in theaters, taking all my friends, telling my parents I was seeing The Sixth Sense again, desperately attempting to cover up the fact that I knew nothing about The Sixth Sense.

I recall years later watching The Sixth Sense for the first time with my family one night, my mom looking over at me to try to anticipate when something scary would happen, not knowing that I knew nothing about it and was just as terrified as she was, yet desperately clinging to my lie, uttering sheepishly after jumping out of my seat, “Boy, that’s still scary the fifth time!” and other such obvious lies.

Regardless of whether it was a re-printed review that I read or an impassioned plea on behalf of the film on television, Roger Ebert’s recommendation of American Beauty and the film’s subsequent impact on me caused me to dive headfirst into the world of film criticism.

I recall the next film Roger recommended to me, Being John Malkovich, and how for the second time in a row, Roger led me to something that changed the way I’d look at movies forever.
I recall spending hours reading anything film-related, from The New York Times in the school library to Premiere Magazine at the magazine rack of the local Publix. Every once in a while, I would convince Mom to buy me an issue. I was the only kid in my class cool enough to reference what Glenn Kenny thought of a new release (I *felt* cool, anyway).
I recall the first time I found Roger online, and spending hours reading his reviews, all at the click of a button.
I recall starting my own website in high school with my best friend Adam. I would write movie reviews, he would write music reviews. Our website’s name? http://RockItHardcore.com. (Strangely, we got a lot of hits from people looking for porn.)
I recall making lists of my favorite movies of the year for the first time.
I recall growing obsessed with the Oscars, wanting to see everything worthy of awards.

And as I continued to read Roger, and I continued to further dive into his world of four-star thumbs-up films, I began to realize that I needed to leave my hometown one day. Jacksonville, Florida, you see, doesn’t get most of the independent cinema. At the time, it wasn’t a lock to even get every Best Picture Oscar nominee.

I didn’t want to live somewhere without the most exposure possible to the best cinema.
I didn’t want to live in a place where I couldn’t see what Roger told me I needed to see.

So I left.

****

At Duke, I took classes in film and screenwriting every year.
I relentlessly raided the DVD shelves at the school library and its local mom-and-pop DVD store.
I spent all my money on eBay, buying films I loved, or often times films I’ve never seen or heard of but to which Roger gave four stars.
I scoured Blockbuster Video’s used DVD racks, buying 3 for $20, expanding my collection.

Roger helped me develop taste.
Roger helped push me toward a love of independent cinema and all things that seemed strange and unconventional.
When I became “too good” for mainstream studio cinema, Roger reeled me back in and reminded me that there’s no shame in embracing a well-made big-budget film.

In college, so many students either only embrace the lowest common denominator blockbusters, or they only embrace the artsiest of the artsy. Roger taught me to love all manner of film, from the biggest sci-fi adventure to the littlest character study.

I recall spending my summers going to the new Jacksonville library, renting any film I could find from Roger Ebert’s Great Movie series. If they didn’t have it on DVD, I’d rent the VHS. I bought a dual VCR/DVD player for the sole purpose of having that flexibility of exposure to greatness.
I recall the first time a four-star Roger recommendation truly disappointed me: Paul Haggis’ Crash.
I recall buying my first Roger Ebert book: his dictionary of four-star reviews. I’ve read it beginning to end dozens of times.
I even recall, at the birth of internet piracy, going through an ill-bouted phase of trying to download any of Roger’s four-star films that neither Blockbuster nor the Jacksonville Library couldn’t provide.
I recall going to grad school for theatre criticism, and nearly immediately regretting it… until my thesis advisor told me I could write my thesis on film.

This blog was founded while I was in grad school, in a meager attempt to get back on the horse, write film criticism again, and be the person to my friends that Roger Ebert was to me. An impossible task, to be sure.

If you scroll back towards the beginning of this blog’s existence, you’ll see several reviews I wrote in a series called Watching Ebert. I’d rent an Ebert four-star film and attempt to re-assess. Was Roger right on the money? Was he stretching? That series of reviews came to a screeching halt when I realized the snippets of Roger’s reviews that I was posting were far more succinctly and far more eloquently making Roger’s point than I was. It was like running a blog that posts Shakespearean monologues and side-by-side poses the question, “Is there a better way of getting Shakespeare’s point across?”

****

As my first year of grad school came to a close, I developed a new dream. The flame of my love of film that Roger Ebert had so vigorously fanned had grown into something different.

I no longer wanted to emulate Ebert. I could never be the next Ebert… but I could be the next artist that Ebert praised. I desperately wanted to create something for Ebert to review.

Although I’ve maintained this blog, written countless reviews, and recorded countless podcasts over the last four years, my dream has shifted to screenwriting. To date, I’ve written six completed screenplays, several more detailed outlines, and I’m proud to say last fall I moved to Los Angeles to officially give my dream the hefty push it needs to hopefully become reality.

Every word in every Ebert review over the course of my lifetime has gently sculpted the hills and valleys in the topographic map of my identity, not just as a moviegoer, but as a storyteller. Roger understood stories: he understood the importance of character, the importance of theme, the importance of action. He never tried to outsmart his readers; quite the contrary, he wanted you to feel at home with his words. Nothing is sadder than intelligent writers who spend an inordinate amount of effort attempting to convince their readers that they are superior to the rest, wielding unnecessarily grandiose vocabulary, extraneous film history references, and a generally judgmental and dismissive tone. Roger’s brilliance was in his accessibility. He made being smart seem easy and cool.

I’m not certain I own every Ebert book available, but I own the majority. Even when I disagree with his take, I find his passion infectious and admirable. I’m certain I will spend the next several months re-reading his legacy.

If you haven’t read his blog, by the way, it shows outright what his film reviews have revealed all along: Roger was a man of great courage, great conviction, great character. He was brave in the face of adversity, optimistic in the face of change, and outspoken about current affairs issues in which he saw injustice. He was and is an inspiration on how to live life to the fullest.

The thought that I won’t be able to see what Roger thought of the new releases going forward makes me unspeakably sad.

The thought that I’ll never be able to meet this man who has had such a profound impact on my life makes me sadder still.

The thought that I’ll never be able to show Roger a finished film and tell him, “You made this happen. Thank you.”… that makes me saddest of all.

Most heroes feel like myth, untouchable figures, masters in their field, larger than life.
Roger was the only hero I ever had that also felt like a friend.

Goodbye, Roger. You’ve changed my life and the lives of so many others more than you could have possibly understood. I’ll never be half the writer you were… but I hope that one day, I can become half of the man you were.

Rest in peace.

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~ by russellhainline on April 4, 2013.

12 Responses to “Roger Ebert (1942-2013): In Memoriam”

  1. Lovely.

  2. Russell, this post resonated with me deeply because Mr. Ebert remains the best film critic there ever was and ever will be. There are so many defining things about his reviews, but for me he always would refer to another movie when reviewing the current one and so a rabbit hole would be created. Whenever I saw a movie, I would immediately jump to his site and see what he thought about it and whether I agreed or disagreed with him. I have woken up to this news, and the world seems like a duller place right now.

    • Thank you for your response. I agree– I’m not sure what site to immediately jump to on Fridays now.

  3. Russ – You never know where your next great inspiration will come from. Often, we aren’t even aware until much, much later in life (if ever) that the movie, the man, the myth – whatever or whomever it may have been – was the seed that molded us so greatly. I for one look forward to seeing your film efforts. When that happens, I am sure Roger will find a way to let you know what he thinks.

  4. This was a fantastic remembrance. 5 more months and I could’ve sent Ebert all of season 1 of my webseries, WRNG IN STUDIO CITY…but it wasn’t to be. I devoured his classic films in much the same way (and I still have a downloaded copy of his “Great Movies” on my laptop.) He will be missed.

    • Hopefully there’s enough already written for a Great Movies IV. Thanks for your reply!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this Russell. Well done! I see a lot of myself in what you’ve written. It seems that Ebert had a similar effect on me as you and on all who love movies. Thanks for writing this and sharing it. Keep it up!

  6. Superb blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?
    There are so many choices out there that I’m completely overwhelmed ..
    Any ideas? Thank you!

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