By Rob Burgess
I knew this was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier. On Thursday, one of my favorite writers, Roger Ebert, died at age 70. His influence on my own writing is hard to overestimate. His prose made something that seemed daunting and inaccessible — high-minded film criticism — into an art form everyone could enjoy. His humanity, humor and insight made him one of the first places I turned when I wanted to know about a particular film. More and better scribes than I have already spilled voluminous amounts of ink on Ebert’s life, work and influence, so I won’t even try to top them. What I will do is reprint some of my favorite passages from Ebert’s writing.
This is short, but it’s something that has stuck with me since I heard it. Apparently, Ebert even had this phrase embossed on specially made ink pens: “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” Genius.
‘Your movie sucks’
I always loved Ebert’s four-star movie reviews. I read them with great attention, hoping to further my own knowledge and understanding of film itself. But I also took massive amounts of pleasure from his reviews of bad movies, too. I almost think he liked writing about bad movies more than good ones. My wife, Ash, and I spent much of our summer reading time by the pool last year taking in Ebert’s three collections of bad movie reviews. I laughed out loud many times, and could fill this entire column with nothing but gems from these collections. But this is one of my favorites: In 2005, when the no-star rated “Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo” was released, star Rob Schneider lashed out at Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, who had given a bad review, with full page ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, incorrectly denouncing him as an undecorated journalist. Ebert concluded his review this way: “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”
‘Leave of presence’
One of the many things I learned from Ebert was sheer work ethic. He saw multiple movies and churned out thousands of words every single day. The loss of his speaking voice to cancer a few years back only seemed to embolden his will to write and communicate, as he began blogging and tweeting on top of his normal work load. It took until he was 48 hours from the end of his life for him to even announce his partial retirement. “Typically, I write over 200 reviews a year for the Sun-Times that are carried by Universal Press Syndicate in some 200 newspapers,” he wrote April 2. “Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now, which is why I’m taking what I like to call ‘a leave of presence.’”
‘She fills my horizon’
It’s obvious his love for his wife, Chaz, was deep and true. In 2010, he wrote the book “The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” in which he detailed his continued joy in cooking for his dear wife, even after he had lost the ability to consume solid foods. How romantic is that? [Editor’s note: Please excuse me while I weep uncontrollably.] “I enjoy cooking,” he wrote in the book. “I still do, even though I stopped drinking in 1979 and, for that matter, stopped eating in 2006.” Here’s part of what he wrote on the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary: “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. ... This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.”
‘We must try’
Ebert didn’t just teach me about movies and writing, but also about life. He was a beautiful human being who only seemed to become more enlightened and sharper as he aged. I leave you with this quote from a 2009 entry in his “Roger Ebert’s Journal” blog: “‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” Rest in peace, friend.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.