To know that our paths can never cross, and that I have forever lost the opportunity to communicate my gratitude for the inspiration his writing has offered, is as heartbreaking as the loss itself. Roger Ebert, critic of over forty years for the Chicago Sun-Times, died yesterday. The process by which I’ll be able to deal with that will surely appear in time, but for now I remain bewildered by the news. I never imagined it would hit me so hard, perhaps because, despite his fearless battle with cancer over the past eleven years, I refused to see this day coming. I need time for his passing to settle. But there is one way in which Ebert’s death has made an immediate imprint on my life…
My first experience of his writing came in late 2008, when researching criticism for a module in my film class. The scathing opener to his Pearl Harbour review caught me hook, line and sinker, so I read on, pilfering the Sun-Times back-catalogue for recommendations. It wasn’t long until I moved onto his first Great Movies volume, and was introduced to the work of Werner Herzog. For this, among innumerable other gifts – the laughs, the insights, the pangs of recognition – I will be forever grateful.
It was with that module, on that day, in the library where I now work, that I decided to be a critic. That word still carries the stigma of implied negativity and snobbishness, but these qualities were the very antithesis of Ebert. Known for his humanism and warmth, this gentle soul tried always with his humour to project positive energy, even, or perhaps especially when pointing those famous thumbs down. In the instances when his work became autobiographical, it was poetic, and damn courageous. He was a “soldier of cinema”, as Herzog once said, his spirit inconquerable, a fighter to the end. He endeavoured to make criticism an art, but he was not elitist; his is among the most accessible criticism ever written, exactly for the vitality and empathy so recurrent in it. That he could inspire one into a profession with his passion is a remarkable testament to the man, my greatest compliment to him, and I think the truest of truths to lay at his feet.
Another truth is that I haven’t been at my best for these past few years. After leaving college I slunk into a depression, my anxiety spinning out of control. I became not only a critic of the cinema, but an unforgiving critic of myself. I tried to write. Sometimes the results were good, but often they were bad. I know for a fact that the anxiety will stay with me for life, but the depression I had hoped would subside. Most days it still gets the better of me, forcing me to mistrust my instincts and ability, my ideas and insights. Too often I abandon a piece just to ease the pain. This piece I am proud of, perhaps for no better reason than the fact it is complete.
But the imprint Ebert leaves is one of hope and encouragement. I wish it hadn’t taken the death of my hero to realise it – I would trade in a second this nugget of wisdom for a few more years of his writing – but I know now that I can’t let these feelings win the day. Since leaving college my greatest ambition has been to write a book. I have it planned, researched, and some of it drafted. It has been all that I’ve wanted to do for years. I am trying to make it my sole activity, and dedicate myself only to its completion. Now, I feel as if I have to. Last night critics and fans poured their memories of Ebert onto Twitter, but my feeling was to look forward, to contemplate a future without him. Only one thing was clear to me: in his absence, we must all up our game.
I couldn’t sleep last night. I took my Great Movies from the shelf, read a few entries and began to scribble notes for this piece. As the sun rose, my sadness deepened. The feeling I have now is one of restlessness, but in a peculiar way I feel better than I have done in a long time. I feel inspired, as if nothing I do today will be worth as much as putting pen to paper and producing a word, a passage, a page, anything of my book. I always knew it was my calling. Ebert taught me that. But today he reconfirmed it. I’ll still struggle and go through cycles of neurosis and self-loathing. It’s my nature. But I somehow feel renewed as a writer. I feel able. I feel like I can actually do this.
One of my favourite of his quotes is, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” It would be crude to suggest Ebert as the window cleaner, but there was something about the clarity of his writing which allowed us all to see the movies a little better, to dig deeper into their layers and meanings. He regularly encouraged me, in the excitement of his prose, to go back and re-evaluate films, or try them from different angles. No other writer has informed on such a profound level my film watching habits. But today he has informed me as a film writer. That’s another one I owe you, Ebert.