Roger Ebert was ill for many years, but his death is still impossible to process. The idea of not having Ebert around is like contemplating life without oxygen.
Ebert was the gold standard for any critic working today, in any medium. He was tireless, smart, passionate and never lorded his knowledge over his readers. He engaged readers, intellectually and emotionally, with clear, bright prose that was inclusive, witty and never condescending.
Among every critic I respect, Ebert was it, and that's that. We know we'll never be as good as he was, but we eternally thank him for giving us something to aspire to.
This loss is especially tough to take as a fellow Chicagoan. Ebert's been in my life forever, even though I only met him once or twice. He began working at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966, the year I was born a few miles away from that building, and he began writing film reviews the following year.
I was lucky enough to grow up with Ebert as my local film critic, and I read his reviews religiously growing up. I began watching "Sneak Previews," the first iteration of his movie review show with the Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, before I was out of grade school. Within a couple of years, millions of Americans were watching the lively spats and the sharp, smart discussions on the Siskel and Ebert show. I got to have a ringside seat as two critics who loved their chosen medium sparred and cracked jokes and generally had a great time. Their energy and enthusiasm remains an inspiration to me today.
I mean, here were two writers who sat down and talked about how much they loved "My Dinner with Andre" and "Hoop Dreams." Among other things, they more or less invented podcasting.
When I became a critic at the Tribune, although I concentrated on TV, I reviewed movies now and then, and that meant that, in a shabby room on Lake Street, I got to sit in the dark with Siskel and Ebert on a few occasions. (I still remember a post-screening rant from Ebert about a really horrible Freddy Prinze Jr. sci-fi movie. It wasn't just spot-on, it was scientifically accurate.)
Many critics have had a formative influence on me: I've read so many over the years, and I was also lucky to work with or know many of the terrific critics of the Sun-Times and the Tribune. I got to work alongside Richard Christiansen, who put Steppenwolf Theatre on the map back in the '80s, as well as Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, who have written some of the best rock criticism of the day, in book and column form. The newspaper critics who taught me my craft -- Ebert among them -- taught me to value clarity, accessibility and an ability to think fast and yet think deeply at the same time. I can only hope that half of what they tried to teach me sank in.
But the biggest professional influence has always been Ebert, Ebert, Ebert. I'll never be as prolific or as hardworking or as loved as he was. I've been part of the Chicago journalism world for more than 20 years now and have never heard anyone say anything but good things about him. He really was that respected, by his co-workers, by his peers, by his readers -- by everyone.
I learned many things from Roger Ebert: write cleanly and clearly, know your stuff, watch as much as you can, be honest but never bitter, and get to the point. But the biggest lesson I've learned from him is to open my heart.
When Ebert was moved by something, I was moved. When he felt something, I felt it. When he needed us to see something, we bought our ticket and we saw it. Every time he returned to writing about movies after one of his illnesses, you could feel the urgency in his work. He came through years of medical hell with a renewed passion for what he did. And his writing got even better.
We felt connected to him because he was so deeply and profoundly connected to what he loved. It's going to be awful to miss him, but we don't ever have to stop learning what he taught us.
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.