Roger Ebert always was, and always will be, the first opinion I seek out about a movie. He's gone now and I won't be able to check in at the Chicago Sun-Times' website and see what he thinks about a new film ever again. But, that's okay. Mr. Ebert was just as pragmatic about the idea of his own death as he was about film theory. He once quoted Walt Whitman when writing about the subject:
"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."
Mr. Ebert left behind an anthology of film reviews, essays, and thoughts on film theory. If you've never read his work, I encourage you to think of your favorite film and type it into Google along with "Roger Ebert." There's no doubt in my mind he has an opinion on it.
His opinions will live on as his legacy was more than that of a mere critic. There are plenty of those. He was more than the guy who saw the movie and wrote what he saw. Mr. Ebert's voice was attached to a megaphone. He made film criticism accessible, bringing intelligent analysis down to Earth and breaking down movies smarter than me. He opened up an entire universe.
I was an English major in college and my appetite for literature was unslakable. There was much more beneath what was happening on the page and I wanted to understand it all. I wanted to know the room Dostoyevsky was sitting in when he wrote. I wanted to smell what he smelled and feel what he felt.
Mr. Ebert taught me I could feel that same way about movies. Not only were there words to investigate, there were images, sounds, and angles to explore and eviscerate. Consider his thoughts on one of my favorite films, Dark City, and its use of German Expressionism some 71 years after Metropolis:
"Visual theory tells us that true verticals and horizontals seem to be at rest within the frame but that sharp angles, sharp diagonals are a motion towards the point of their sharpest angle and want to break out of the frame and so, when you have angles like that in compositions, or when you use tilt shots, what you're telling the viewer, essentially, is there is nothing they can really count on in this universe. That the characters themselves are likely to fall out of the orderly pattern of their lives and to find themselves careening into some new direction they can't anticipate. The angles are very disturbing in that way."
People think of film critics and they taste blood. They think of negativity and smugness. What many don't realize is no one loves film more than the critic. Positive reviews aren't read half as much as negative ones, but it's the positive ones that count. They inspire people to seek out art, to create it. They trumpet the quality of the artist for all to see. When the artist is too modest, it's the critic who tells the people, "Look! Listen!"
Jean Renoir said of the greatest critic, Andre Bazin, that "The singer has risen above the object of his song."
That's how I feel about Mr. Ebert. I could always watch a film and enjoy it. Anyone can, but Roger Ebert showed me their secrets. He ushered me behind the curtain. He told me about auteur and Marxist theory and about German Expressionism. Critics like Bazin, Andrew Sarris, and James Agee were before my time. I would find them later. In the beginning, there was Roger, and me, and the movies. I, for one, will miss him and his trumpet.
RIP Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)