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Roger Ebert taught us to love movies, life

By Dan Zak
The Washington Post
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

I met him once. Rather, I ambushed him. It was in the thin air of Telluride, Colo., for the film festival, in 2004. He had just finished a conversation with New Line executive Bob Shaye and came out of the clock tower on West Colorado Avenue. He was small in person, his face gaunt from skirmishes with cancer. I approached him, joined him in his quarter-mile walk to his lodgings, and spilled it.

I love movies because of you, Roger.

Or, rather, I understand the movies and myself well enough to call it love.

Because of you.

What has been your favorite of the festival?

Where are you off to next?

I don’t remember a single answer. Probably because I did all the talking. Looking back now, after his death at 70, I’m relieved I had a chance to thank him.

A critic’s noblest and most generous act is to inspire passion in others. Roger Ebert taught me to love the movies.

Roger Ebert taught the world to love the movies.

Look how many movie lovers are publishing their gratitude in tribute, in personal terms. Look how some refer to “the movies,” with its definite article – his populist, intimate, Midwestern way of referring to his life’s passion.

He became known for his thumbs, but this up-or-down brand was out of sync with his ecumenical, nuanced grasp of cinema and life. This analyst was a humanist. This was a wit among twits. Everyone is a critic now, but how many of us possess the required authority, humanity and dexterity with words?

The first writing I did for newspapers was film criticism, and Ebert’s annual compendia of starred reviews were my inspiration.

During high school I tacked above my desk one of his enduring quotations: “A movie is not what it is about but how it is about it.” The simple, elegant authority of this maxim transfixed and guided me, not least because one might substitute “story” – or anything else really – for “movie.”

It guides how I write today, about anything. The smallest, most insignificant subject can make for a great story if you inquire with verve and execute with care. By mastering the parameters of a medium and rendering his judgment and appreciation into words, Ebert taught me that. A writer must be both skeptical and big-hearted, intractable on some matters and flexible on others. Ebert taught me that too.

“We must try to contribute joy to the world,” he wrote in May 2009, in a blog post on mortality.

“The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience,” he wrote in 1991 in his top 10 list.

Roger Ebert contributed joy by sharing his joy. And by sharing his outrage. After all, if we are going to pay money to withdraw into darkness for two hours, it better be worth it.

“We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness,” he wrote in 2008. “Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.”

One of his most memorable digs: “ ‘Pearl Harbor’ is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on December 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle.”

One of his most resonant compliments: “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

The movie of your life

“Life Itself” is the title of his graceful memoir, published in 2011, and its opening line captures how he (and we) are wedded to cinema: “I was born inside the movie of my life.”

We all are.

Our lives unspool behind us in Technicolor, in Cinemascope, in dissolves and montages and swish-pans and close-ups. He was the celebrant of America’s intimate union with the medium. He chronicled how we retreat into the temple of movie theaters, how we step outside ourselves, how after the credits we emerge into the world wider-eyed and clearer-headed.

Because of Roger Ebert I am enraptured by “The Third Man” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” I am over the moon for “The Producers.” I prize the work of Billy Wilder and the delight it brings to my life. Because of Roger Ebert I have seen “Tokyo Story.”

Because of Roger Ebert’s commentary on the DVDs of “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca,” I not only understand but appreciate why the first is the greatest movie and the second is the most beloved.

Pull back the curtains

A piece of writing is not what it is about but how it is about it.

He beat alcoholism.

He didn’t beat cancer.

So it goes, he might have said.

In a career of great lines, his best was: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”

Ebert pulled back the curtains. Come, see. Look at the million lifetimes you can live while consigned to your own.

Roger Ebert taught me to love the movies, and therefore life itself, and I will have this love for the rest of my life.

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