Like so many in the nation and the world, I paused this week to mark the passing of film critic Roger Ebert. He was one of a few writers who shaped how and why I write.
I am a full-blown movie addict, and have been since I was but a wee child. Unless I am working chances are I'm watching movies - and I'm talking about days going past as I watch one after another. There are hundreds of films I've seen hundreds of times. Growing up it was very hard to find writings about movies - not celebrity stories but about the art of making them.
Roger was one of the first people I discovered who championed movies as The Art of our times. His Sneak Previews show which arrived in the late 1970s on PBS with Gene Siskel was a pure marvel - his passion for movies was vivid and endless and through his entire career he was able to manage the tricky task of simply watching a movie and critically exploring it and not letting the critic to overwhelm the simple viewer that most folks are. He often took Siskel to task for reviewing a movie for what it was not rather than what it was.
Prior to Ebert the only critics I had found were Knoxville's own James Agee's collected film writings and back issues of the New Yorker with Pauline Kael's reviews. But her insights lacked that quality Roger had of simply being able to watch a film and be entertained without the film be Something Important to Cinema. He saw and expressed all the layers a movie could have and eagerly shared them.
He had the fortune of being in the right time and place to bridge the movies of the old Hollywood studio system and the emerging auteur viewpoints of visionary directors and writers and chronicled that change as filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorcese rose to be the powers of Hollywood.
Roger met Kael in 1967 and after she read some of his work told him it was the best film criticism appearing in newspapers. By 1969 Reader's Digest published his review of Night of the Living Dead and he was on his way to international fame.
He confessed to being a fan of director Russ Meyer's sexploitation movies and wrote the script for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", a purely ridiculous project, yet it showed how, like the best movies, Roger had many layers too.
What I took notice of thru the 80s and 90s was how film criticism had been broken free from publishers or academia and everyone began to talk and debate the merits of movies just like Roger did. He had a masterful knowledge of films but he also understood the value of subjective views.
And while this has spread among us all, there really aren't many paid critics today who write as simply and with as much style, who can surprise us with what a movie - old or new - can reveal to us about ourselves and our world.
But I am so very grateful to have lived and learned from him. He helped show the world how powerful a movie can be, how we have been exposed to great art which is not contained in a museum - it's a living thing we all share.