04 April 2013

The balcony is closed

This blog used to be a receptacle for my film reviews, and while I don't see as many movies as I used to, and I write about them even less (although I do at least try to keep that sidebar updated on new viewings), this feels like the right spot to pay tribute to Roger Ebert, a hero of mine who departed earlier today at the age of 70 after a long and complicated battle with cancer.

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert. You were truly a hero of mine, someone who led me to discover the joys of movies at a young age and seek out titles I would never have heard of otherwise. Back when I was about 12 or 13, I remember avidly leafing through one of your Movie Yearbooks in Chapters. I waited with breathless anticipation every Friday morning so that I could read your reviews of the newest releases, back when my local paper, the Calgary Herald, still carried them. It was around that time that I began trying to see as many recent releases as possible. I think back to 2004, when I managed to see almost 100 movies that had come out that year (often dragging my parents to some of the more R-rated fare, much to their chagrin, I'm sure), which seems paltry compared to your yearly average, but was an impressive source of pride to me. I would also seek out the older movies you gushed about that I'd never heard about before at my local video rental store--back when those things still existed. If Rogers Video didn't have it, I'd make the longer trip over to Casablanca, a more boutique store renowned to Calgary residents for carrying the real tough-to-find stuff. I was rarely disappointed. Indeed, you seemed to open up a whole new world of cinematic possibility for me, encouraging me to pay attention to movies and appreciate them like I never had before.

You were one of the main inspirations for a time for me to write my own film reviews. Back in 2003 or 2004, I made an account on RottenTomatoes.com and began to write my own reviews and post frequently on the forums there. I was still shaping my tastes at that time and I'm sure if I went back and read those pieces again, I would be shocked at what I found passable back then. Even though I don't write on film much anymore, I still have a passion for cinema--one whose fires you very much helped stoke.

You were a tremendous and almost absurdly prolific writer who deftly balanced humour, erudition, and accessibility. Your open, heartfelt, conversational tone inspired countless people to seek out the joys you found at the movies and served to bring film criticism to the mainstream, with its integrity and grace fully intact. While many found the 'Thumbs up/down' conceit a mere tacky gimmick, it hooked people and encouraged them to look past the digits into your actual tremendous output and learn more about cinema in the process, and come to love it more (although it's unlikely we could ever love it as much as you).

I have no idea how you managed to keep up that pace (reviewing oftentimes 300 movies a year, in addition to writing other columns for the Chicago Sun-Times and books and, later on, poignant and light-hearted blog posts) without ever sacrificing the quality of your writing, but you somehow pulled it off. Whether or not I agreed with your reviews (and I quite often didn't), you always had something sharp or fascinating or funny or cheeky to say, whether the review was positive or negative. It's not for nothing that you're the first film critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize.

Your Great Movies books were treasure troves of insight, commentary, and beautifully articulated passion. I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie provided bountiful laughs as you took down the stinkers. Your reviews for the classics--Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey stick in my mind, as does Singin' in the Rain--can truly be counted among the most ardent and insightful pieces of writing I've ever read. On the other side, your opening volley against Freddy Got Fingered is one of the most deliciously scathing take-downs I've ever witnessed: "This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels." Either way, your work always shone with wit and intelligence.

Your "Movie Answer Man" column laid out invaluable etiquette guidelines for patrons of the cinema. (I wish more people followed them.) There and elsewhere, you also tackled many technical developments in the film industry with uncommon thoughtfulness and rigor. I particularly remember your digital vs. celluloid debates, your reluctance towards the recent proliferation of 3-D, and your discussion of the importance of aspect ratio with regard to home video viewing options. I still do think you were too hard on video games, but we'll let that slide.

Beyond the breadth and depth of your contributions to the world of cinema, your blog and your wonderful autobiography, Life Itself, showed you to be a brave, kind, and thoughtful soul (not to mention a technologically savvy one). You never slowed down despite facing a tremendous amount of adversity, remaining a tireless champion of the cinematic art. As I read more and more about your life, I became more and more impressed with the way you dealt with struggles--exhibiting real grace under pressure--and your zeal for your life's work. You were a guy I almost felt that I knew even though I know I really didn't.

You once said: “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” Your reviews as well as your musings on life never failed to bring a ray of joy into my life, and they undoubtedly brought happiness to your readers and to countless other film lovers out there. You always gave us something to think and argue and, often, smile about. At the end, it seems you were entirely successful in living up to your goal as espoused here.

The curtain has gone down on the movie of your life (or should I say, your life at the movies) but the lights have gone up: you remain an everlasting source of inspiration.

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