Yesterday, I was sitting on the HuffPost Live stage with the fortune to interview Danny Boyle. Boyle is a filmmaker who had a somewhat profound effect on my teenage years. I had loved Trainspotting in high school and I had a poster of the film in my room at home and in my dorm room at college. I wanted to be Sick Boy, minus the heroin and the sleaziness. Well, maybe some of the sleaziness. In the midst of the interview with Danny Boyle, our producer said into my earpiece, "Roger Ebert's just died." It surprised me but I knew we wanted Boyle's reflection.
When I informed him, he gave a great answer about British film and American film and how Ebert represented that breath of fresh air he felt in America's love of movies. But as he talked, my job as a host began fading and I began to really feel Ebert's death. It was the first I had heard of it. Friends told me it seemed Boyle was consoling me. He was and thank you, Mr. Boyle. Below is that moment of consolation.
After the interview I sat down at my desk and wondered why I was so shaken by Roger Ebert's death. I had heard of his "Leave of Presence" so, I wasn't surprised. Others asked me if I knew him personally. Which would have made sense considering the effect it was having on me. No. I didn't.
It wasn't until I got home and saw this Facebook post from fellow filmmaker and friend Michael Tully that it was really brought home for me.
That was it. Ebert was my first connection to cinema. My whole life I was obsessed with movies. As an only child I heard adults talk about films and used that as an entry into their conversations. But at a certain point movies just became my own obsession and I think it started to creep them out how seriously and intensely I spoke about film when disagreeing with them.
Then the internet came. Roger Ebert was one of the first film critics to have a fantastic web site with all of his current reviews, past reviews, essays on films of the past and personal takes on the state of cinema today. Not only did I have someone to discuss film with that was far smarter and more adult than me, I had someone to recommend films of the past I hadn't seen. When I was in 8th grade his review of Boogie Nights name-checked Scorsese, so I went back and watched all of Scorsese starting with Goodfellas and moving through The Color of Money, King of Comedy and down to Mean Streets. Still haven't seen Boxcar Bertha. Sorry, Marty. Ebert's interviews with Scorsese then referenced Jean Luc-Godard and the doorway to the French New Wave had been opened.
When I was in 10th grade all my friends were obsessed with Fight Club, but no one seemed to care about the "fragile humanism of Magnolia" as I described it (I know. Kill my 10th grade self). I penned a letter to Ebert telling him I felt disenchanted with the tastes and opinions of my peers and that I really only had him to go to for film discussions that challenged me. Ebert wrote back, something along the lines of, "You're in high school and soon enough you wont be. Then it's yours for the taking." It wasn't the long back and forth I was hoping for but it was succinct and exactly what I needed to hear. Someone to reinforce there was a place outside of the small town I lived in. I may have been near an art house theater and video store but it never felt like I was watching the films I loved with anyone else until there were reviews posted on Ebert's site.
Like any child does with their parents, I started rebelling. After my first year of film classes and viewing more and more experimental films, I questioned and even disregarded Ebert as a critic. I believed he was part of the problem with he and Siskel's "thumbs up" staple cheapening the experience of cinema. How can you reduce pieces of art to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down? You should be writing academic essays on semiotics and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. But, even while I was rebelling, I continued reading Ebert's reviews every week. I would go back and hunt through his great movies essays for films I hadn't seen and follow his battles with filmmakers, audience members and other critics. He was a tireless force. If you cared about movies, you cared at least a bit about Ebert.
Like any good kid, I came to realize how smart, articulate and important Roger Ebert was, important to me and to the world of cinema. Say what you will about cheapening film for the mainstream, at least he may have contributed to people seeing The Sweet Hereafter or Crumb, or even Hoop Dreams, which he so rightly championed again and again, naming it his favorite film of '90s.
As an adult, I could disagree with his opinions but no longer hold it against him. I saw his point of view, took it in and sometimes agreed or disagreed but he always gave me something to think about. I could never say his arguments weren't valid or inarticulate and I came to realize how much more he knew about cinema and the world than I did. Just as you come to realize at a certain point that your parents were right a lot of the time and they still know a fair amount more about living than you do, so chill out and show some respect. Well, Mr. Ebert, respect. You will be sorely missed and I hope this gif I made of me dropping my head unprofessionally in front of another person I respect and who also had an impact on me as kid makes you smile somewhere.