Some of you may be wondering why I have written nothing about the death of Roger Ebert. On the day he died, I looked through my Twitter feed (where I follow many film writers and critics) and discovered an outpouring of grief, sadness, and outright shock. “OH NO OH NO OH NO,” read one tweet. “I can’t even…” read another, the author of which was too distraught to even finish his sentence.
These critics were clearly deeply influenced by the late Mr. Ebert and with good reason: he really did change film criticism. When he began at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, film criticism was something closer to news. There would be a little write-up of the latest film in the corner of the page, with comments on each movie’s acting, pace, and overall impression. Readers would use this to decide if they would go see it or not. But Ebert changed all that: he made film criticism an art form in and of itself. His enthusiasm for the medium came through in both his raves and his pans. As he got older and sicker, he increasingly viewed films through the prism of his own questions about life, religion, and mortality, and his reviews reflected his soul-searching nature. Those critics who grieved for him like they would for a family member have a right to do so – they knew him almost as well.
But I have never felt that way, even though I, too, have been deeply influenced by him. I was writing movie reviews for my school writing assingments as early as the fourth grade (I raved about Driving Miss Daisy), and I remember reading his annual collection of reviews cover to cover, over and over again. I wanted to write about movies for a living, and I still do. So by definition, I should be one of those people devastated by the loss. But I’m not. I will miss reading his reviews, although they are still there – thousands of them – waiting to be revisited. But despite his soul-searching, I never felt that I knew him, and I don’t shed any tears for his passing – no more than I would for the friend of a friend, someone I knew only peripherally.
I knew and loved his work – but not the man. To be perfectly, shamefully honest, he always seemed like a bit of a jerk. It was his onscreen persona, I guess, but even in those outtakes of the commercials for Sneak Previews that made their way across the internet he seemed like a bit of a grump to me, and it always kept me from embracing him as a real hero of mine. Now, those who know him say that he was kind, generous, and passionate. His writing bears that out, but we must keep in mind that his writing – his reviews, essays, and even his blog, in which he interacted regularly with his readers – represented only the version of himself that he chose to project. It was only one side of him, and unless you actually knew him…you didn’t actually know him.
What is it about our society that makes us mourn for celebrities and artists as if they were family members? Why did people sob over the loss of Steve Jobs, who, from all accounts, was not a very nice person? Why these public outcries of grief? I imagine it has something to do with the fact that we are increasingly spending our lives staring into screens. The people on them (or behind them in Jobs’s case) become our primary relationships. From his pulpit on the television screen – and later, the computer screen – he preached the gospel of movies to thousands. I was a disciple as a child, but then I grew up and realized that you have to separate the art from the artist. Or at least try to.
It’s why I can still watch and love Woody Allen movies, despite the horrible things he has done as a person. Same with Roman Polanski. People always want to meet their favorite movie stars, but I never do; it’s not the artist that I love, it’s the work. Although Woody’s movies have meant a lot to me over the years, I doubt I will grieve when he dies. I’ll be sad that there will be no more great Woody Allen movies, although, in that regard, Woody started dying a long time ago. But when his day actually comes, I won’t mourn. I’ll probably just pop Manhattan or Hannah and her Sisters into my DVD player, and spend some time with someone I love.
The same goes for Ebert. I’ll miss reading his reviews, but that’s okay. His work has spawned many great film criticism careers, and I now turn to people like Wesley Morris, J. Hoberman, and Andrew O’Hehir when I want to read something great about the movies. None of them would exist without Roger, I imagine. His legacy is his work, and to say anything more feels a bit presumptuous.