Thursday, April 04, 2013

Reading much into Roger Ebert

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it." — Roger Ebert, saying how he really felt about North (1994)

So Roger Ebert's dead now. Physically, at least.

I don't think that fact has completely hit me yet. Perhaps it will the next time I get on Twitter and realize my feed's not quite as awesome as it's been for the past three years.

Ebert was easily in my top 20 list of living people I most wanted to meet. Not for the obvious reasons, though. As much as I enjoyed his movie reviews (a niche he will own forever) and enjoy watching / reading about / writing about / being in movies myself, I don't consider myself a cinephile.

It's not because of his outspoken liberal politics, though he and I would no doubt have preached to our respective choirs for days on end. 

It's also not because he wrote a book called Your Movie Sucks, but that's getting warmer.

It's because Roger Ebert was the kind of guy who would write a book with that title. He was the Howard Cosell of print journalism.

Cosell, like Ebert, was a rare breed of journalist. It was once said of Cosell that he wrote a column on the air. If he thought a boxing match was a charade or that a football referee made a terrible call, he'd say so, as it happened. Not because he wished to court controversy, but because it was the truth. Cosell was an old-school journalist, the kind who didn't care about toeing any corporate or company lines — he called it as he saw it, and his vision was sharp. He gave praise and compassion where they were due and hurt feelings where they deserved to be hurt. He unflinchingly addressed politics and other current events as they related to games and athletes, making sports relevant to everyone. And most of all, he was hugely entertaining in the process. That's why he's still very much in the public consciousness 18 years after his death and nearly 30 years after his final broadcast.

Ebert embodied that very same don't-give-a-crap attitude. Journalists are so often drilled to be neutral, objective and narrow — qualities necessary in many aspects of the craft. However, in recent years especially, this has led to blander copy even in entertainment and sports venues. Even writers who have more leeway to inject creativity and opinion into their writing exercise excessive caution, and not always for the noblest of reasons. This cautiousness bleeds into the rest of their output, such as social media (of which many journos have a love-hate relationship). What pundits we do have often go overboard, and lack serious journalistic training. It's almost as if we have one extreme or the other nowadays — the staid, rote journalist who squelches their personality entirely, or the four-alarm, professional opinion-monger. The middle ground is where our best journalism has historically emerged. Ebert, perhaps as a holdover from a freer era, continued to embody that spirit long after it became the exception in America's pages.

These days, journalists and editors debate furiously over where the media is headed in the age of the Internet and social sites. I submit that Ebert had it right — he brought tremendous expertise to his particular beat, writing informed (yet accessible) reviews, and was just himself online. He was simply an articulate human being, who saw the world as compelling a spectacle as anything on screen. He succeeded not because he reviewed movies, but because he reviewed life. And like Cosell, Ebert called it as he saw it. Every word he wrote was a conversation with us, a 24/7 dialogue that the loss of his jaw and the ability to speak never silenced. Above all, he was a personality — something painfully missing from so much writing today. As it turns out, the future of creative journalism is the man who, as of today, is part of its past.

I often struggle to articulate who my role models are, or the direction I want to take with my life. But when I look at Roger Ebert, that vision suddenly becomes clearer. I don't want to just be a distinctive voice; I want to be a better human being. Also, wittier on Twitter. 

R.I.P., Roger. May both of your thumbs point toward the heavens. (I know you would tell me that line sucks. It does.)

"Making out at the movies is wonderful." — Roger Ebert

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