THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"A TRIBUTE TO ROGER EBERT"
Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images
I will not be the only person writing a tribute to Roger Ebert. There will be dozens of them. This is a testament to his enormous influence. An entire generation of film critics exists because of the example he set. I'm one of them. In recent years, Roger fought a valiant battle against cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland. Though it all, he maintained his dignity, speaking openly and honestly about his struggles while still maintaining a busy workload. He loved movies so much that not even severe illness could stop him from writing about them. Today, that illness claimed his life.
I first saw Roger with Gene Siskel on their PBS television show “Sneak Previews.” I was about ten or so, and it was a revelation. Two guys, sitting in a theater balcony, talking passionately about movies. They made being a film critic seem like the coolest job in the world – which it is. It made me want to do that job. I followed the duo through the various incarnations of their show until the day it ended. I devoured Ebert's books, regularly visited his website, and watched him every time he made an appearance on a talk show. As my own career as a film critic progressed, I repeatedly looked to him as an inspiration. While I knew I would never come close to achieving his brilliance as a writer – or his success as one – his example made me want to devote myself to the pursuit of discussing cinema.
Although we never met, Roger was also a phenomenal teacher. So much of what I've learned about the world of film criticism came from him. Through his shows and writings, Roger taught me that the colorization of old movies was bad, and that letterboxing of movies on video was good. He taught me that the MPAA rating system is screwed up and requires fixing. He taught me that quality independent films are in need of unwavering vocal support. He taught me the ethics of reviewing a piece of art someone had labored on for months or even years. He taught me to like what I like, and to never apologize for it. Perhaps most importantly, he taught me to have a generosity of spirit about films, by which I mean approaching every movie hoping to have a good time, even if on the surface it seems like something I wouldn't like. Movies have the power to surprise, and it's wonderful when they do. If one turns out to be bad, it can always be taken to task later on.
Roger was just as extraordinary a person as he was a critic. During his illness, he never lost his sense of humor. He also fought his cancer with the same passion with which he reviewed movies. When he lost his jaw during surgery, rendering him unable to speak, he refused to back away from the public eye. There was no vanity in him. I found that just as inspiring as his career. Every person's life has its share of adversity; Roger was proof that you can come through it with grace.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Roger. I will miss his views on the new movies opening every week. I regret that I was never able to meet him, to tell him about the ways in which he influenced me. Then again, I don't think I needed to. He knew that he had influenced so many young critics. The internet is filled with writers who do what they do because of him. We will carry on his legacy.
As the news of Roger's death broke, I was asked to give an interview to a local radio station. The first question asked was how I felt upon hearing of his passing. My intention was to say “I feel shocked and devastated,” but I actually began to say, “I feel terrified” before catching myself halfway through the final word. Truth be told, I am terrified of a film culture without Roger Ebert. His work meant so much, and it was invaluable to the cinematic discourse. The world of movies has lost a singular, wise, compassionate, and utterly irreplaceable voice.
Rest in piece, Roger. And thank you, thank you, thank you.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!