I was in the midst of learning to run an enzyme-linked immuno sorbent assay (ELISA) when I heard the news about Roger Ebert’s passing. And if I am being completely honest, it shattered me. The nation had lost one of its best writers, the industry had lost a giant, and I had lost my North Star.
I won’t address the irony of the fact that I was learning about the very procedures that might one day lead to the cure for the disease that took his life. Nor will I dwell on the idea that I would not even have been in that laboratory had it not been for Mr. Ebert. Instead, I will focus on the man himself – a man whose very existence gave purpose to my own, and to so many others who looked to him for counsel and guidance
Thinking back, I realize I did not often agree with Mr. Ebert. His and my taste in movies were wholly opposite to one another, and his list of pet peeves was often utterly contrary to my own. And yet, I have not yet read a review of his that I did not completely enjoy. To say of a man that the strength of his incredible writing supersedes any disagreement I may have with his opinion is perhaps the greatest praise I can give to another person, but no one is more deserving than Roger Ebert.
His brilliance was in his eloquent simplicity. It was in his metaphors, his tangents, and his biting hyperbole. And of course, it was in his seemingly unscalable mountain of knowledge of film, literature, and popular culture that he used to inform his analyses.
But Roger Ebert was more than his reviews, and indeed more than his writing. He was, plain and simple, an inspiration. Among the staff here at Movie Fail, his influence was monumental; the consensus from our writers is that while many of us got our start by following in his footsteps, no one will ever fill his shoes. And yet for me, his role in my universe extended well beyond his work as a critic.
Roger Ebert changed my life.
Though I write for Movie Fail, and in spite of the fact that I am working toward a film certificate at the University of Massachusetts, I am, first and foremost, a scientist. I have been working in science laboratories since the age of 15, pining away at molecular assays as I attempt to build a career for myself once I finish school. Biophysics, epigenetics – you name it, I’ve done it.
But all throughout my education, I was also committed to making film and journalism a lasting part of my life.
As a child, I spent my Sundays watching Ebert and Roeper At The Movies. I loved their show, and every week I eagerly anticipated their catty debates about which films deserved praise, and which deserved a good trashing. From the fourth grade through middle school, my fellow Movie Fail contributor and longtime friend Michael Capodiferro and I would struggle as we attempted to write and shoot numerous home movies. But somewhere deep down I knew that my heart was really in film criticism, so much so that I tried several times to get Mike to film a segment with me that closely mirrored the format of At the Movies.
Although that never happened, the seed was planted. And since Roger Ebert had brought his opinion to multimedia, I was going to, too.
In high school, I started working at WWUH at the University of Hartford, volunteering my time catalog to their extensive CD and record collection. With that as a symbolic foundation, I founded a podcast club at my school where Tim Nicholson and I actually started Movie Fail as a segment on our weekly show.
In college, I started Movie Fail with Tim and have poured almost all of my free time into its maintenance and upkeep. I also started writing for The Massachusetts Daily Collegian as a film correspondent, and began co-hosting a radio show of my own along with Mike, our paths having come full circle from childhood.
But then came the question of what to study as an undergraduate. In his article “The golden age of movie critics,” Roger Ebert gives advice to anyone thinking about becoming a critic:“I tell young students: Take film courses, certainly. But cover the liberal arts. Take English literature, drama, art, music, and the areas Bordwell lists. Learn something about science and math. A physical anthropology course was my introduction to the theory of evolution, which is an opening to all of modern science. Don’t train for a career–train for a life. The career will take care of itself, and give you more satisfaction than a surrender to corporate or professional bureaucracy. If you make careers in that world, you will be more successful because your education was not narrow.”
So now I’m a microbiology major, working in a molecular biophysics lab and attending research conferences all over the country. But every day, as I sit in class learning about the oscillation of the FtsZ ring in bacterial cell division, I remind myself that Mr. Ebert himself wouldn’t have it any other way.
Over the past decade, Mr. Ebert became extraordinarily facile with Facebook and Twitter, making good use of those social media platforms to connect directly with his readership on a personal level. Naturally, as a longtime fan of both him and his work, I immediately attempted to make contact. My first note was simple, but collegial in nature:Hello Mr. Ebert, I’ve been reading through the posts from people around Facebook on your wall, Mr. Ebert, and I have to say I have been delighted at how responsive and open you have been with your fans. I’m 19 and I’ve only just started writing serious reviews for my own blog, but if nothing else, I’ve been invested in keeping the lines of communications up between myself and my (few) readers. I’m glad to know that maintaining this connection with the community is still a part of even the best critic’s repertoire. Søren
And then there was this one:Hello Mr. Ebert, You have been a true inspiration to me. Every Sunday afternoon was an event, sitting around with my family and watching to see movies we enjoyed would get the coveted “thumbs up,” and which would earn your ire on At the Movies. Today, I am a college student majoring in microbiology – but I haven’t forgotten what you awoke inside of me. Taking that passion a step further, I have begun to really invest my time into understanding film. I have been taking courses in film studies at my university, as well as studiously contributing to my website (Movie Fail). It is an ever-evasive goal to write clear, concise reviews, but it is one that I am more than happy to strive for. Again, thank you for being the very picture of a role model. Søren
Unfortunately, I never received a response to either of these – unsurprising, given the man’s incredibly busy schedule managing thousands of overeager followers and admirers. Mr. Ebert did find time to reply to at least one of my posts, however:
It isn’t glamorous, and my one and only brief communication with him will forever include the words “uh,” “butter,” and “salt,” but I will treasure it anyway. What Mr. Ebert did for me that day was show me firsthand that even a giant of the field can take some time out to speak with those who aspire to their position. He showed me that a brief moment indulging a fan can reaffirm a lifelong admiration. He showed that despite his intense, debilitating battle with cancer, he would continue to write, continue to teach, and continue to connect with this fans.
And he showed me that there is more to popcorn than just the exploded kernel – there’s the fatty condiments that dress it, too.
In the final scene of American History X, a film that Mr. Ebert and I both happened to like, Danny Vinyard talks about his brother’s advice for writing an essay. “Derek says it’s always good to end a paper with a quote. He says someone else has already said it best – so if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong. So I picked a guy I thought you’d like.”
With that sentiment in mind, I’ll end with one from the man himself:
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Choice Articles by Roger Ebert
Video games can never be art – A piece that I vehemently disagree with, but is a brilliant read
We’ve Seen This Movie Before – An incredible article about the Aurora shooting and gun control
Don’t tear down that wall – A fascinating and insightful post about the separation of Church and State
What was that all about? – An analysis of films like those by David Lynch as puzzles without solutions
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo – Josh Rosenfield’s favorite Ebert-penned take-down
A Leave of Presence – A powerful final word from Mr. Ebert about his failing health