His Greatness Stemmed From His Passion: Roger Ebert 1942-2013
I struggled all weekend with the idea of writing about Roger Ebert’s death. For one thing, I disdain obituaries. Reading several textbook, pre-written Ebert obits from countless media outlets was truly depressing. Then I came across rogerebert.com Editor Jim Emerson’s piece. Emerson, having known Ebert for nearly 20 years, managed to be personal without being sentimental. It’s a truly poignant and beautiful piece (and not overlong). How could I write anything better? I might as well just provide the link to his piece on my blog (right here) and leave it at that.
But something was nagging at me. Emerson knew Ebert, he was a friend to him. I of course did not, yet I felt like he was an integral part of my life and my journey as a filmmaker. Ebert’s reviews meant so much to my 15-year-old self, who would devour his reviews, then head down to the local video store and grab the beat up VHS copy of The Maltese Falcon & Bonnie & Clyde.
It wasn’t just his writing ability (which was phenomenal) but his passion and genuine love for film as a medium that truly made his words as powerful as they were. There are reviews that he has written that I enjoy as much as the films themselves. That is the passion Ebert brought to his work.
After several days of struggling for the right words, someone better wrote them for me. This morning I stumbled upon James Berardinelli’s piece on Ebert, and this specific segment spoke directly to the heart of what I wanted to say:
“Famous people die every day. Most of the time, we pause for a moment to acknowledge their achievements then move on. We don’t know them. We know what they did. With actors, we might recognize their faces and voices, but our memories of them are of the characters they played. With someone like Ebert, however, it’s different. Everything he wrote - reviews, columns, blogs, interviews, tweets, etc. - was personal. He didn’t hide behind an alter ego. So the sense that readers “knew” him wasn’t misplaced. And that’s why his death is felt so keenly by so many - not because he is “greater” or “more famous” than anyone else but because he let us get close. Even to those who never met him, he was a friend and companion.”
I never met Roger Ebert. But to me, he was a friend, and I will miss him.
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.— Roger Ebert (via squid-skywalker)