In Memoriam: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)


Roger Ebert, respected film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and arguably the most popular and influential man in the history of his profession, passed away Thursday, April 4, 2013. He was also the greatest blogger the Internet has yet seen. Since this blog would be very different if I had never read him, it seems appropriate that I spare a few good words for a man who never ran out of them.

My earliest memory of reading him—I mean really reading and being influenced by him—was just after I had seen Citizen Kane for the first time. I was in high school, and Orson Welles’ film had just shown me that movies could also be great art. After finishing my first viewing, I was in such awe that I immediately started it again from the beginning. Once the second viewing had finished, I ran to my computer and looked up Ebert’s Great Movies review. Welles’ greatness demanded exegesis, and Ebert delivered it. It was something of a revelatory time for me: I had never really thought of movies as art before. I had enjoyed movies greatly, but was only beginning to see them critically. And adding to this, the DVD of Citizen Kane included a commentary track by Roger Ebert himself, in which he explained in conversational tones, scene-by-scene, just what makes that movie so darn awesome. Movies “clicked” for me, then, much as literature had some years before. They were entertainment, yes, but they could also be meaningful art.

For nearly every movie I see, new or old, I find myself looking to see if Ebert has reviewed it. Sometimes I read his review before seeing the movie, to gauge whether it is worth my time. Other times I see the movie first, and then run to read what his thoughts were. Often I would read his recommendation first, see the movie, then come back to reconsider what he said. You know a writer is special if you reread him, voluntarily, for both enrichment and enjoyment.

Ebert’s history you can read elsewhere; I will not repeat it. But I would like to mention one thing about him that has long earned my respect: his willingness to have his mind changed. This type of humility is uncommon in men who know they are famous. Consider his famous “war” against 3D films, epitomized by this essay he wrote for The Daily Beast. For the space of a few years, his reviews of nearly every 3D movie that came out would end with a note on how poor or unnecessary the 3D was. By all accounts I’ve heard, he was right. But then some fascinating things started to happen as truly brilliant directors started playing around with the technology. We got Avatar, where the 3D at least ceased to be annoying (though neither I nor Ebert thought it an asset), and then Hugo in which it was fancifully pretty and charming, and most recently Life of Pi, in which the 3D actually aids in producing some of the most awesome and gorgeous frames of cinema you will ever see on the silver screen. Ebert’s reviews of these movies reveal how much fantastic art excited him, especially when he least expected it. Compare what he said in the article for The Daily Beast with this excerpt from his review of Life of Pi:

What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in “Life of Pi.” I’ve never seen the medium better employed, not even in “Avatar,” and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, [director Ang] Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film’s sense of places and events.

Let me try to describe one point of view. The camera is placed in the sea, looking up at the lifeboat and beyond it. The surface of the sea is like the enchanted membrane upon which it floats. There is nothing in particular to define it; it is just … there. This is not a shot of a boat floating in the ocean. It is a shot of ocean, boat and sky as one glorious place.

In that quote you might also note something else that appeals to me: the poetic prose he was capable of when the Muse of Cinema gripped him. Most critics use metaphors as a way to sound witty before their readers, or sometimes to hide the fact that they haven’t clearly thought through the part of the film they are commenting on. Ebert wasn’t bound to that; here he reaches for poetic phrases in his ecstasy to communicate the joy of his experience watching the movie. It was important to him that we readers to know how wonderfully the 3D is used in this movie. He knew that many of us would regard it as important. I sure do.

[The Nostalgia Critic Doug Walker elaborates on the importance of Ebert’s passion in his own tribute video, which is well worth a watch.)

When he arrived in the blogosphere, he turned his keen mind to every other subject that interested him: politics, social issues, foreign cultures, music, religion, clever YouTube videos, cartoons, photography, literature, video games, cooking—fer cryin’ out loud, this Pulitzer Prizewinner wrote a cookbook about rice! You could always disagree with his writing and feel he would respect you for it, if you knew why you thought the way you did and believed it truly. And in return I have paid him the same respect: some of his opinions I have really hated, especially when he would praise men like Hugh Hefner or his friend Russ Meyer, but I understood why he held them, and I could never hate him. I could always understand why I agreed or disagreed, because he was honest about his opinions and biases as well as he was able to be. It gives me great sorrow that—to my knowledge—he remained, in practice, an atheist to his death, despite the influence of many Christian friends. I italicize in practice in deference to his own words, published quite recently on March 1:

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.

I do believe this: that God works good even through those people who reject Him. It does honor to God to recognize this, and to honor those people through whom we have been blessed. By God’s grace, I have been blessed through Roger Ebert.

Farewell, Roger. You never knew me, but I became your friend in the way a reader befriends the soul who writes to him. I prayed for you a lot over the years, and always wished you well. Indeed, I wished you a greater happiness than you would accept for yourself. We disagreed much, and agreed much, and I owe you a great debt when it comes to how to think, write, and enjoy movies intelligently. You enriched my life. I already miss you.

God bless,


I hardly expected to break my hiatus (unannounced, for which I beg your forgiveness and thank your patience) in such a somber manner. When work and projects pile up, they easily overwhelm me, and my time ends up divided between That Which Hath Deadlines Enforced By Others and That For Which I Need Thinketh Not At All. Things in-between, which have no deadlines but are enforced by myself on myself, but which yet ask of me thought and care and passion, such as this blog, sometimes then fall from the wagon of my workload. But not blogging leaves me unhappy, and I have long been directing myself towards a return. I have so much to say, and so much to read! And I have been reading, make no mistake. Novels, scholarly works, fairy tales, webcomics. Very many of your own blog posts. I’ve seen great movies and exciting television shows. My mind needs sharpening and my soul the nutrition of fellowship. I am ready to come back. Are you ready to read?


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

8 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)”

  1. I realized the other day that there probably isn’t any film that I went to see, or have watched in my home, that Roger Ebert didn’t review.

    I think people that only knew him as the “thumbs up/thumbs down” guy are missing so much, though that’s how I thought of him until I had easy access to his reviews and content through the internet. I think what I found most remarkable is that he really seemed to ENJOY films – even after so many decades. He managed to convey that excitement into his writing and combine it with analysis that showed his mastery of the medium. And he managed to do it without sounding like a pompous ass.

    1. Oh absolutely. There are still a number of films he didn’t review that I wish he had, but his sheer output is just amazing. He was one of those writers, like C.S. Lewis, whose passion for his subject gushed forth in a current of rich prose at a constant strong rate. I mean, he only started to slow down mere months before he died, and only admitted to it the day before. Have any of us the right to complain of weariness or lack of time in the face of such productivity? Some of us, maybe, but not many.

      Yeah, to most people his name is just a “thumbs up/down” associated with Gene Siskel, but his blog was, I think, one of the most read on the Internet. Still is. He angered me a lot of times, but I never regretted reading him. He pointed me towards so many good things.

      (Well, occasionally he did sound like a pompous ass, but it was rare and he seemed to recognize that danger and actively try to keep himself from it. He was always keen to judge a movie by what it was trying to accomplish, rather than just by what he felt he wanted from it.)

      1. It’s been amazing, to me, to see how many have been influenced by him and how deeply. I never noticed him much, but now I am intrigued and will have to do some reading.

        1. For readers (in the Lewisian sense, which applies to all art, including cinema) Ebert can become addicting. If I type the letter “r” into my browser’s address bar, the first address it comes up with is For years I’ve been in the habit of checking him several times a week, even when I knew his illness and surgeries were keeping him away. If we both liked a movie, it was thrilling to share in the way he expressed his joy over it. If we both hated a movie, he would make it just as fun and perceptive to join his annoyance. If we disagreed, reading his review would just be part of an ongoing conversation that I, as a reader, had with him. All Ebert’s writing is social: he makes his arguments and wants you to react to him emotionally as well as intellectually, and to respond in whichever way you can best express yourself. That’s why I think he stands out so much from every other reviewer, even the best of the bunch (and I can name a few other good ones). For Ebert a review is not a scholarly article, it’s part of a discussion he imagines having with you.

          Here I go, adding more stuff that might have gone in the article. I find it difficult not to “lecture” or expound when my mind gets going. Forgive me. Because all I really needed to say was this: Yes, I think you will appreciate reading him. And look up some of his video reviews with Siskel or Richard Roeper on YouTube. Not only are they highly entertaining, but it helps to actually hear his voice in your head when you read his text.

  2. Are we ready to read? What kind of question is that?
    You give a good metaphor for how things slip through the cracks, though. As usual, I can sympathize.
    I don’t know if you do this or not, or if it has the same effect on you that it has on me, but I have noticed that when I take time in the morning to pray and read what, for lack of a better word, I will call a devotional, that time seems to expand. It’s like every minute spreads out, not just for the morning but for the entire day. I’ve been failing to do it, lately (why am I such an idiot?) and I notice a difference I can only call extreme. Where before I had more than enough time to do what needed to be done as well as rest and rejoice, now I have no time. …must do better, starting tomorrow.

    1. I need to do this, too. I haven’t succeeded in doing it for more than a handful of times. My special prayer time has always been at night before bed, which is the worst because I’m tired and my mind is full and I just want to quit the world for a few hours. May the Lord change my habits and my stubborn heart!

      1. Amen! And may I have the discipline to do it again tomorrow, and the day after, and on and on. It’s frustrating to be a patient who knows the medicine (which is really quite sweet) helps her, but who doesn’t take it for reasons unknown to even herself. :/

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