I first became aware of Roger Ebert via Mad magazine parodies in the 1980s, but he was just another American pop culture icon, like JR Ewing and Ronald McDonald. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I came across his film reviews. I’d be browsing the list of External Reviews of film at the Internet Movie Database and there’d be “Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert]” and I’d think, oh yeah, I’ve heard of that guy, and click through.
And so I discovered Roger Ebert’s film reviews and his particular style of reviewing. It was personal. It was subjective. It didn’t rely on having a great big academic knowledge of cinema (he’d learned his craft on the streets) and he wasn’t afraid to put himself in the review.
That was one of the biggest discoveries for me. I’d been taught that the writer does not put herself in the review, that it is egotistical to do so. But yet there’s actually a real person writing the review. It’s not generated by an algorithm (though I’m sure that’s not too far off). In a way it seems more honest for a reviewer to acknowledge herself and her personal reaction to a piece rather than to pretend she represents everyman.
In my intense film-viewing years (1993-2004), his film reviews led me to discover great titles I’d never seen before. I’d browse his archives, looking at four star reviews, make a list and head off to Videon to raid their shelves. I’d previously dismissed seeing “Dark City” at the cinema because I was confusing it with the vampire action flick “Blade”. But Ebert loved “Dark City” so that led me to discover it on video. It was a slick, mysterious, stylish, noir sci-fi, which is just how I like it.
But I also realised that an Ebert review didn’t blindly make me see or avoid films solely based on his review. Ebert hated “Spice World”, giving it half a star and declaring the Girls are “so detached they can’t even successfully lip-synch their own songs.” Pft! Whereas I bloody love the cheesy fun of “Spice World” and consider it one of my favourite films.
Even before his cancer diagnosis, I used to worry what would happen when he died. His extensive body of work, his archive of reviews stretching all the way to back to the 1960s would, one day, end!
In later years Ebert took to blogging, using the limitless medium as a place to write about many things other than film, including a never-produced script of a film for the Sex Pistols. But my favourite entry was his 2008 meditation on the rice cooker, “The pot and how to use it”, which was turned into a book with the delicious subtitle “The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker”. He wonders, “How does the Pot know how long to cook the rice? It is a mystery of the Orient. Don’t ask questions you don’t need the answers to. The point here is to save you some time and money. If you want gourmet cooking, you aren’t going to learn about it here.”
But somehow, in more recent years, I stopped watching too many films and found I was less interested in Ebert’s work. It was still there, I still read it, but just less and less often. But the one thing that never left was the influence of his style. It inspired me when I first starting writing stuff on my website (the pastime now known as “blogging”) and it still nudges me in good directions. And from all the tributes I’ve seen today, he’s inspired many people and left the world a better place. And that’s a pretty good life to have led.