By David Nilsen
I own a lot of books, and I own a lot of movies. It would be hard to say which passion has owned more of me, but while my mind says books, my heart says film. Roger Ebert had a lot to do with that.
I miss Roger. I didn’t know him personally, so it may seem presumptuous to use his first name, but that was the nature of being a student in the School of Ebert – he was your friend even if you never met. In the academic world of film criticism, it is appropriate to use last names. When I try to call this man “Ebert” though, I feel like I’ve just been told to call my dad Sir. I call my dad Papa. I call the film critic who has taught me more than any other Roger.
I didn’t become a passionate student of film until my mid-twenties, much later than most of my fellow cinephiles. I have loved movies my entire life, of course, but I did so in a haze of arrogant ignorance until I realized how little I actually knew. That awareness came about when I sat down with the first book in Roger’s Great Movies series. It was a library copy, though I set about purchasing my own soon enough. As fate would have it I now work for that library, and I’m sitting at my desk holding that very copy of The Great Movies in my hand these many years later. Thank you, Roger, for opening my eyes. I spent a good many years of my young life working without remorse to convince people of a religious system I no longer adhere to, and I am very familiar with the vocabulary of conversion. The wool being pulled from the eyes, the eyes of the heart being opened, seeing through a glass dimly before seeing face to face, etcetera. Roger’s writing opened my mind to the wonder of film, and the sight-related imagery of so much conversion language seems perfectly fitting.
Roger was cagey about his own beliefs. He was ideologically an agnostic and functionally an atheist, but he never assigned himself those labels and was always respectful of the beliefs of others so long as those beliefs weren’t used to hurt or oppress. His humanism and agnosticism were generous and open. One of my favorite lines on the nature of belief comes from his 2011 memoir Life Itself: “Those who say that ‘believer’ and ‘atheist’ are concrete categories do violence to the mystery we must be humble enough to confess.” His open-mindedness, his estimation of beauty over theory (though he knew his theory better than his detractors gave him credit for), and his willingness to engage films and experiences with his heart as much as his mind made him the most sympathetic of the great critics. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Roger was fine admitting he was just a man watching a movie and telling us what he liked and didn’t like about it. There was great confidence in his voice but little arrogance. That his reviews may have grown a bit soft in the final years as he became more and more a man wonderstruck with the privilege of watching movies for a vocation is not to his detriment; it makes me trust his heart as offered in his half century of writing all the more.
And that writing. What possibly set Roger apart from his peers more than anything else was the strength of his prose. Reading his reviews was enjoyable. For years I read every review he wrote, even for movies I had no intention of watching, because there were inevitably sentences, paragraphs, clauses, something, that made me pause, some flash of delight. He taught me nearly as much about writing as he did about film. And what he taught me about film was a great deal. I read all of his essays about great movies, more weekly reviews than I can count, and, of course, his wonderful blog. I learned a lot of information about film theory and history, but I also learned which information mattered and why, and the angle at which it mattered, and why that in itself mattered. He was a gifted teacher, one who never shamed initiates. He was thrilled anyone else would love movies too.
Roger Ebert died April 4, 2013. I remember where I was when I read the news. Only a few famous deaths have really affected me in a deep, emotional place – Elliott Smith and Philip Seymour Hoffman come to mind – and Roger’s affected me more than any other. It really did feel like I’d lost a friend. So many times now when I watch a new movie I will wish Roger could have seen it and written about it. I want to know what he would have noticed, responded to, disliked. I might not agree (our opinions regularly diverged), but his film writing was always fair, lucid, and insightful. When I watch a classic he never wrote about I feel it even more sharply.
My favorite book I own – the best birthday gift I’ve ever received – is a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself. It is signed by Roger and inscribed to me: “To David, a fellow movie lover”. My best friend (who is now my wife) worked for a very close friend of Roger and his wife, Chaz, and took the book to Roger to have it signed. That he was willing to do so, and to inscribe it thoughtfully to someone he’d never met, is deeply meaningful to me. It is a regret of my life I never wrote to him, as I understand he was quite given to correspondence with readers. At the time, I was content to read and to learn. I’d like the chance now to sit and talk with him, to laugh, even to argue. I want to watch a movie across the aisle from him, grab coffee afterwards and talk about it.
I guess I just miss my friend I never met.
Books by Roger Ebert available at GPL include the following titles:
Life Itself: a Memoir. Grand Central Publishing, 2011. 791.43 Ebert.
The Great Movies. Broadway Books, 2002. 791.437 Ebert.
The Great Movies II. Broadway Books, 2005. 791.4375 E.
Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the finest writing from a century of film. W.W. Norton, 1997. 791.43 R.