“Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
-Roger Ebert, 2002
I first read those words in early 2006, during a particularly cold winter and a particularly cold time in my life. I had just graduated from college after a long series of changes to “the plan,” and the path to a life that I was interested in living still seemed painfully foggy. I had also just been the unwilling participant in an especially painful break-up, and was suddenly facing the prospect of weekends with no girlfriend and no college parties to go to. Though I didn’t know it yet (because I hadn’t actually seen the film yet), I was just as directionless—and just as non-waspy—as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. All I wanted was an adult to do something other than ask me about my future, to say something other than “plastics.”
Roger Ebert filled that void. During one of many evenings spent aimlessly wandering around Borders (RIP), I stumbled on the first volume of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” books, and I can honestly say it changed my life.
I had always been a bit of a cinephile. Seeing Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in theaters as a 13-year old first opened the floodgates of my movie love, and before I knew it, I was probably the only 8th-grader in Muncie, Indiana checking out old Scorsese and Kubrick movies from the local Hollywood Video. This love of film continued through high school, when I was dazzled by late-90’s masterpieces like Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, and Three Kings. But college nights and weekends simply presented too many temptations and distractions, and I went through a period of several years where I just didn’t see that many films. Eventually I finished college with an English degree and the idea that I would be a rock critic, but soon realized that I just wasn’t very good at writing about the mechanics of music.
Finding Roger Ebert’s “The Great Movies” on the shelf at Borders that cold January day was the moment of clarity that I needed. I couldn’t believe how many of these films I’d never heard of, and I couldn’t wait to start watching them. As luck would have it, TCM was playing one of the movies, The Third Man, that night, and I loved it so much that I eventually named my blog after it. My journey had begun, with Roger Ebert as the best tour guide I could ever imagine.
One of Roger’s favorite quotes is from Groucho Marx, who once said “I would never want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.” It’s a funny idea, but perhaps the reason Roger loved it so much is because it couldn’t have been farther from his ethos. Roger Ebert wanted everyone to be a part of his club. No one has ever made the discussion of art feel more inclusive, more accessible, and downright friendlier than he did. That he was able to do this without ever dumbing down himself or his subject matter is a truly remarkable achievement.
While Roger was an academic in the most flattering sense of the term (it’s difficult to fathom anyone understanding or studying film more than he did), he never came across that way in his writing. To Roger, the point was never to speak only to other cinephiles, but rather to help everyone become cinephiles. Roger wanted the conversation to have the widest reach possible, to touch everyone. As he says in the quote at the top of this piece (taken from the introduction to “The Great Movies”), the best movies can “make us into better people.” Roger truly believed that (as do I), and that’s why he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be so affected.
Roger’s conversational tone has been a great influence to my own writing, and reading his work over the years has taught me invaluable lessons in how to convey ideas clearly, effectively, and simply (though I still have some work to do on that last point). I clearly remember my first few weeks and months pouring over “The Great Movies,” and eventually its sequels. The anecdote from Omar Sharif that begins his Lawrence of Arabia piece—about how unlikely it was that the film would even get financed—still informs many of my ideas about the business of Hollywood. When Roger spoke of The Shawshank Redemption absorbing you to the extent that you lose the realization you’re watching a movie, I knew just what he was talking about. When he discussed the concept of real truth versus perceived truth in his JFK piece, he helped me realize that the latter can be just as important, even more so, than the former.
And reading Roger’s work might have been the first time I realized that simply stating what you like wasn’t breaking the rules. It seems obvious now. After all, isn’t stating what you like what a critic is always doing, at least to some extent? But nobody did it better than Roger, and nobody did it more passionately. Roger’s favorite movie scene was in Casablanca, when the singing Nazis are suddenly drowned out by Victor Laszlo leading the singing of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise. For someone who believed that good movies could make us better people, it should come as no surprise that Roger was a sucker for people overcoming the odds to do the right thing.
But I'm a sucker too, and good movies have definitely made me a better person; hopefully they still are. My thoughts on mortality are inseparable from those of William Muny in Unforgiven—It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. One of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day, is literally about learning how to become a better person, one day at a time. And The Third Man, the very first movie I ever watched on the recommendation of Roger Ebert, ends with its protagonist doing the right thing knowing it would cost him the girl, and yet he still goes after her at the end just to watch her walk away.
In recent years, I’ve found that I haven’t agreed with Roger’s taste as much as I used to. As his health continued to decline in the last few years, I felt that his taste was becoming a little less discerning, as though he was so thrilled to still be able to go to movies he just couldn’t bear to be as critical of them. But there’s an important lesson to be learned there, and it’s that no one has ever loved what he did more than Roger Ebert.
Here’s a painful truth to consider: Roger Ebert has probably seen more terrible movies than most of us have seen movies, period. When Michael Caine won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2000 for The Cider House Rules, he famously joked in his speech about how much crap he’s made. Well, Roger Ebert saw all of that crap. He saw all of everyone’s crap. He saw every latter-day Eddie Murphy movie AND every Katherine Heigl movie. He saw four Scary Movies, but the Movie Gods mercifully saved him from a fifth with just a few days to spare. And yet there was no one more excited for the next movie he’d see than Roger Ebert. Even after a long series of health setbacks robbed his ability to speak, Roger still looked forward to being part of the conversation.
I noticed this when I encountered Roger at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. He sat two rows in front of me for a surprisingly uncrowded interview with the heads of Sony Pictures Classics. Despite the fact that a handful of major directors (Jonathan Demme, Gus Van Sant, and Atom Egoyan, to name a few) were in the room and chatting with people after the interview, I only wanted to meet Roger. I could tell he was having trouble moving, he seemed tired, and obviously he couldn’t speak, so I didn’t want to keep him. I didn’t bother him with talking about my writing, I didn’t give him a business card, and I didn’t even introduce myself. This wasn’t networking. It wasn’t about what Roger could do for me, but what he had already done for me. I simply told him that his writing has been very important to me, and I shook his hand.
But of course, that was an understatement. Roger Ebert has been so important to me that, like Bruce Springsteen, I no longer even like the formality of referring to them by their last names. I (falsely) feel like I know them too well for that. Just Roger will do nicely. And something Roger has always done is steadfastly called them “movies,” not “films.” Films sound stuffy, while movies sound enjoyable. Roger always thought movies were enjoyable. In my own writing, I’ve often struggled with this to the extent that sometimes in the same paragraph I switch back and forth between the two terms. Should they be films or movies? I’ve never really figured out an answer I’m satisfied with, but today at least, they’re movies.
When the news of Roger’s death hit Thursday afternoon, I immediately felt the need to honor him somehow in what I watched that night. Then I figured out what seemed like the perfect solution. Just a few days prior, I had checked out Gates of Heaven from the library, which was one of the 14 movies from Roger’s first volume of Great Movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. Ostensibly it’s a documentary about Pet Cemeteries, but really it’s a film about how people deal with death, so it felt like the perfect movie to watch as I celebrated the life of Roger Ebert in my own little way.
To my surprise, I didn’t really like it. The pacing was a little too glacial, the action a little too sedate, the interviews a little too meandering. But like I always do with a movie that Roger recommends, I read his review afterwards. And even though Gates of Heaven had disappointed me, Roger’s essay about it did not. Through his words, I understood what he saw in it, why he found it so interesting, so revelatory about the human condition. Tastes will never overlap all of the time, and the goal of the critic isn’t to get people to like everything (you think) they ought to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help them understand the things they don’t like, and maybe even appreciate them. I’ve never learned more from disagreeing with someone than I have with Roger. And on the night that Roger Ebert died, he was still teaching me.
Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies.