Roger Ebert draws young film buffs to Chicago

April 4, 2013

Nico Lang and Leah Pickett

[Note: Nico Lang and Leah Pickett wrote these reflections on Roger Ebert's influence on them as writers, movie goers and people prior to the news Thursday that the legendary Chicago film critic has passed away.]

Yesterday Roger Ebert announced that he was stepping down as the lead film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. I’ve known this day would come since he first broke the news about his battle with cancer in 2006. Since then, each of his reviews has felt like a precious resource or an old letter, something you know you need to keep close to your heart.

I knew one day I would have to write him my own letter to tell him how much his work has meant to me — and inspired a generation of young critics. I wish that day weren’t today.

The first time I read an Ebert review I was a lonely kid, living in the suburbs of Ohio. I couldn’t get the other students in my school to talk to me or look at me, and one day, when I sat next to a girl I liked on the bus, the boy in front of us informed her she should move.

“He’s the biggest loser in school,” he bluntly reminded her.

Like many young film critics, I instead found my community in the movie theater among the people huddled in the light of the widescreen, illuminated by giant images of Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

These were my people, the compulsive cinephiles, the people who saw almost everything, even when it was trash. The summer of 2001 I saw almost everything that was out, including Monkeybone, which I saw twice. The film was widely dismissed and ignored by the critical community (because it was technically terrible), but annoying cartoon animals aside, I was enraptured by the depth of its art direction, the surreal world Henry Selick created with his sets and his swiss-army-knife imagination. No one else liked it. I felt like I could see something no else could, like a Magic Eye picture made for me.

Roger Ebert rightfully hated Monkeybone, but I started reading his reviews because he was unafraid to champion the films everyone else left behind, unabashed about the joy he found in watching something as silly and brainless as Tomb Raider.

He forced me to see the beauty in trash and to give films a chance I might have otherwise overlooked. He even has a film festival, EbertFest, devoted to it. Many of his readers decry the fact that he gave four stars to Knowing (where Jesus turns out to be an alien) or Perfume, because his opinions so fly in the face of consensus. But that’s exactly why I’ve loved him for so long: He told me it was okay to like the things I liked, simply because I liked them. 

I love Ebert because as a nerdy kid who needed heroes to look up to, he taught me the value of my own perspective and that people could cherish your contribution to the conversation, whether you agreed with others or not. He’s not Armond White, who goes against the grain to make a statement. Ebert's a gentleman. He forces us to evaluate our own opinions and think about what a film truly says to us, and his critiques of The Human Centipede films have been particularly relevant at a time when we're increasingly taking violence for granted. Sometimes we have to wonder: Is this the movie we really asked for? Is this what we want?

He might champion the little guy, but he’s not afraid to throw his share of shade — in the best possible way. For Ebert newbies, check out his review of North for that.

When I came to Chicago, part of me came here to be closer to Ebert. I wanted to be able to pick up the Chicago Sun-Times and read him every Friday like my own personal weather forecast.

Ebert has been my compass, my personal totem and my guide. I know that I’m not alone in feeling like his words have raised me. I find comfort in finding out that other people share in my devotion to his work. It's yet another community of people finding solace in the consolations of art.

I know that as long as his health allows him to write, every word will be incendiary and timeless, an eternal testament to the power of the page. But Ebert doesn’t just belong to print, and his work will live as long as there are people gathered in the dark, looking for light. He belongs to the ages.

Nico Lang

'A marvel of Herculean proportions'

Roger Ebert is the reason that I decided, at the ripe old age of nine, that I wanted to be a film critic.

I was a very weird kid with crippling social anxiety; but thankfully, I discovered early on that the world of movies was my safe haven: a magical place where I could go to escape all of my problems, even if just for a little while.

So, on one particularly lonely Friday night (after watching The Godfather for the umpteenth time and imagining how sorry my bullies would be after I went back in time to marry Michael Corleone), I changed the channel and saw Roger Ebert on my TV screen, talking about a new film called The Truman Show.

As fate would have it, I was instantly captivated by this serious-looking man and his relentless verve for moving pictures. I shared his enthusiasm over every little cinematic detail; and when he began analyzing Truman’s cultural impact with partner Gene Siskel, the electricity of their back-and-forth was as visceral as anything I’d ever felt. I wanted to bottle up that energy and cherish it forever, so that even when I felt different from my family and friends, I’d never have to feel lonely again.

Of course, I didn’t know then that 12 years later I’d be on a plane to Chicago, inspired to attend the Ebert-approved Columbia College film school with a well-worn copy of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie in my backpack. But as I watched Siskel & Ebert on that life-changing night circa 1998, I discovered that my dream job had a name (film critic!) and, after reading every Chicago Sun-Times review that I could get my hands on, learned that Roger Ebert was more than just a kindred spirit: he was my cinephile spirit guide.

In many ways, Ebert has become a marvel of Herculean proportions. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, celebrated author of more than 15 books, veteran TV personality, founder of a film festival, prolific writer of some of the best film criticism that I’ve ever had the fortune to read and a survivor in every sense of the word.  

Amazingly, Ebert’s 11-year battle with thyroid cancer has failed to weaken his spirit, as he remains just as insatiably passionate and exceedingly talented today as when he first began writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. And even though his cancer has returned this year, Ebert plans to “slow down” but by no means cease writing completely. According to his announcement, Ebert will continue to review films that interest him, raise funds via Kickstarter to reboot the TV show At the Movies and promote his Kartemquin Films bio-documentary due out next year: the Martin Scorsese-produced, Steve James-directed adaptation of his best-selling memoir, Life Itself.

I will miss reading Ebert’s weekly reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I also take comfort in knowing that his archived works will live on for me to continually re-visit and enjoy. Every time I read his spot-on review of Bonnie and Clyde (his “Best of the Year” pick for 1967) or his top 10 list of favorite movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, The General, Raging Bull, Tokyo Story, The Tree of Life and Vertigo), I get goosebump-memories of my nine-year-old self, watching his show and reading his reviews for the very first time.

Ebert’s hiatus is undeniably sad news for those who love and support him, but his “leave of presence” also could not have been more beautifully stated. Whether he will grace his readers with a hundred more reviews or start an entirely new chapter on the other side of Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s legacy is already written on our hearts; and as long we have his words to turn to, then he will never truly leave us.

— Leah Pickett

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can follow Nico on Tumblr and Twitter @Nico_Lang or find them on Facebook. Leah Pickett covers Pop Culture for WBEZ. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @leahkpickett.