The Movie Lover
Many famous people’s deaths have saddened me. Roger Ebert’s death felt like a punch to my stomach. It may have been fitting that I learned of Ebert’s passing right after a movie screening, but at the time this was no solace. Ebert’s views and reviews have shaped my understanding of film for more than 30 years, and now that voice was gone.
When I first started watching Ebert and Gene Siskel on TV, I knew little about film criticism. As a young boy, I just saw two entertaining, sometimes bickering men talk about movies that were coming out and whether people should see them. Like many, I enjoyed their arguments. Eventually I got the greatest joy in seeing them talk about a film they both loved, and what made that film so exhilarating. Their excitement was contagious. They were teaching me and millions of others to think about film and not just be mindless consumers. Maybe “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” was simplistic, but they were the gateway to learning about what film criticism meant and why it’s so valuable.
Of course since I did not live in Chicago and was not yet reading film books, I originally knew little of Ebert or his ideas beyond what came through on TV. That all changed with the Internet. Now I could read his reviews and understand much more than I could from his show. His influence grew both wider and deeper. Beyond his take on specific films, Ebert explained why movies worked the way they did. He both illuminated and poked fun at movie clichés on his website and in his book Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary, which I used as a basis for a Cinema Lounge discussion just a couple of months ago. Readers could now interact with him directly and ask questions, which he addressed in the Movie Answer Man section on his website (and later even more directly through social media).
Best of all, Ebert began his Great Movies series, re-watching and reviewing classic films. It’s easy to acknowledge that some films are among the best ever made. But it’s much more meaningful to examine what made these films special. The Great Movies series also reminded fans that the best films should not just be seen, appreciated and then mentally filed away. We can and should revisit the classics, not because they are classics but because we can both rediscover why we loved the film and uncover new pleasures that we may have missed before. As Ebert so often reminded us, the best films remain vital and alive if we keep them that way.
Ebert taught me that lesson more directly in April 1997 at the Smithsonian. He led a scene-by-scene discussion of Citizen Kane over three days. Using a laser disc (this was still before DVDs) he commented on the film’s story, background, sound, music, and cinematography. Early on he proclaimed that Citizen Kane used more visual effects than Jurassic Park. We in the audience gasped in disbelief, but Ebert throughout the film explained how Orson Welles and his team used the effects of the day to make the film seem bigger and more expansive than their budget allowed. Ebert made sure that his talk was a true discussion and not just a lecture. While he stopped the film to offer commentary, he also asked the audience members to yell “Stop” if they had a question or wanted to offer their own thoughts. He listened to us and took our comments seriously, whether he agreed or disagreed.
For me that discussion stirred an entirely new level of interest. First, I understood how one can analyze and appreciate a film on so many different levels. The most interesting films have layers that you can peel back and explore through multiple viewings. Second, Ebert illustrated that watching films is just one way to enjoy them. As Owen Gleiberman explained in Entertainment Weekly, Ebert “made us realize that talking about movies is, in fact, a part of watching them.” Discussing movies, whether in person or online, not only allows you to learn more, but it’s also part of the fun. That spirit embodied the “DC Movie Guys” film talks that Bill Henry and the late Joe Barber gave. It’s what I hope guides the Cinema Lounge, the DC Film Society monthly film discussion group that I now moderate.
During his time in DC, Ebert also appeared in Georgetown to sign copies of Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, an anthology of film writing that he edited. Someone asked him about attending the Cannes Film Festival. “Don’t go to Cannes,” Ebert replied, “Go to Toronto.” He described how the Toronto International Film Festival was much more accessible and friendlier for film enthusiasts than Cannes. A couple of years later a friend of mine living in Toronto invited me to come up for the festival. I followed Ebert’s advice and said yes. Ebert was right about the festival and I came back five more times. The festival gave me experiences and joys that I’ll never forget, and I wished I could have seen Ebert again to thank him.
I still have the book from the Georgetown signing. When I got home the night Ebert died, still a little shaken, I took out my copy and shared it with my wife. Ebert had signed it “To Adam, Movie Lover.” Now I realize that Ebert probably signed all the books the same way, but I still hope that he sensed a kindred spirit in me. For he was a movie lover who enabled me, and so many others, to love movies more deeply.
May 1, 2013
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