Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why Roger Ebert Matters to Me

After his recent appearance on "Oprah" and Chris Jones's amazing profile on him for "Esquire," you're going to see lots of tributes painting Roger Ebert as an icon of American literature. Will Leitch did just as much, writing a wonderful essay on knowing Ebert, which can be found on Deadspin.com.

Let's get one thing clear: The man totally deserves every shred of praise he's getting. This is not mortality-influenced kudos. Ebert has always been a great writer, but his TV presence obscured that fact. He's not a great film critic. He's a great writer who happens to write about film, and I think his blog work proves that.

Anybody can say a movie is good or bad, but it takes a true talent to go beyond that and be funny, and poetic, and moving...Read anything from Ebert's "Movie Yearbooks" and the prose still sings. Who else can make a review about an atrocity like "North" still sting 16 years later? The wordplay is dazzling. The observations are fresh, a mixture of life lessons and keen cinematic observations and humor. He never sounds defeated or deflated or cynical to be at the movies. To me, he's always sounded like a guy who loves what he does and doesn't take his position for granted.

If I sound like a disciple, it's because I am. Roger Ebert made me want to review movies, but he also made me want to become a writer.

After my grandfather died in 1989, he left behind a basement library full books. Before my grandmother moved from that house in 1992, my brother and I would grab books that tickled our fancy. During one visit in 1990, I grabbed a copy of Ebert's 1985 "Movie Home Companion." I was just starting to love movies, and I figured Ebert's book would at least be interesting.

Man, was that an understatement.

The book hit me like a 2 x 4 to the head. I devoured it, amazed that someone could write with such intelligence and verve without making me feel like I was being talked at. (Remember, I was 12 at the time and my greatest non-sports reading achievement was almost finishing an "Encylopedia Brown" box set.) From that point on, I was hooked and read as much as I could from him. Ebert turned me on to writing and films and books and everything else. I never had a chance.

Now, 20 years later, I am writing for a living. I can't imagine doing anything else, and I owe Roger Ebert so much. He's one of my literary heroes, and I hope he has enough time to pick up some more followers.

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