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A few words on the passing of Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert inside his home in Chicago. (Photo by Anne Ryan, USA TODAY)

In his new Five things we learned this week round-up Páraic mentioned yesterday’s news that has taken over the online film world – the death of the Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.

Ebert was one of five film critics/writers who I felt I could really trust. In my book he stood alongside Jeffrey Wells, Mark Kermode, Manohla Dargis and David Bordwell in my mind but in reality he towered over all of them – like some sort of movie critiquing godfather giving his patented thumbs up to those below him.

His words didn’t always make complete sense to me nor did his opinions always match mine, however every single review I’ve read that he has written over the last six years (and he’s written quite a lot, racking up 306 in 2012…) made for brilliant reading. If I hadn’t seen the film being reviewed (as was often the case due to differences in release schedules), his reviews meant I was either eagerly anticipating, completely indifferent or dreading an upcoming release – but never uninformed.

We record a podcast here every month. We’re never shy about our influences and I’d be lying if I said that old VHS-rip youtube videos of Siskel and Ebert “At the Movies” weren’t a huge influence on us. Of course we’re not fit to even lace their boots, but the camaraderie, wit and intelligence on show should be an inspiration to anyone feeling like their cinematic opinions might matter.

Of course I, like a lot of my generation, am really only familiar with the “new Roger Ebert”, the witty old critic who got cancer and couldn’t talk. Despite the years of battling cancer and dealing with botched surgeries that left him unable to talk or eat, he never lost his enthusiasm. Please excuse my use of cliche as I say that he may have lost his voice, but boy could he write.

Ebert contributed to the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 – his last published review was published on March 27th and gave a tepid ★★½ out of a possible ★★★★ for The Host. Sure the annual books of reviews from the “old Roger Ebert” may have made it over to Easons over the years, but it’s really only with the advent of the internet and youtube that film fans from outside North America were able to get a true picture of the man’s career and life. These days he has become as well known for his blogging, Facebook and Twitter activity as he had for his newspaper criticism. He embraced social media early on and quickly became one of the must-follow personalities, choosing to share a perfect mix of links, opinion and witty asides. More recently his writing has expanded to things away from the cinema, as we’ve been treated to pieces on the strength of his marriage to Chaz, his adapting to use of a rice cooker because of his cancer and even the processes behind his New Yorker caption competition entries.

Unlike a lot of movie critics, Ebert actually loved interacting with his readers and, SHOCK HORROR, would actually read through and EVEN BIGGER SHOCK HORROR often reply to a lot of the comments on his blog. His final post outlining his need to cut down his workload due to a return of the cancer now acts as quite a fitting last testament, with the comments section below now a moving book of condolences.

The closest I physically came to Ebert was in Toronto. He had a book signing in one of the city’s big department stores. The signing was for the paperback edition of Life Itself: A Memoir and I’d already devoured the book so felt I wasn’t missing out too much by staying away from the long lines. I regret it now as it may have meant a nod and a wink from the great man himself. Ebert was a huge fan of the Toronto International Film Festival, probably because of its proximity to Chicago and the massive plate of films that it offered up to him. In attending the festival for three years between 2010 and 2012, I wasn’t too pushed about bumping into the Clooneys, Goslings or Fassbenders of the world but would have given anything for a quick photo op with Mr. Ebert.

Anyway we’re here now. We’ll have no end of tributes and eulogies and the Scorsese-produced documentary to look forward to. All we can do is just wish Ebert all the best as he joins the likes of Michael Dwyer, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris at that big critics circle in the sky.