It was the same ritual every year. It was usually late October, maybe early November. You’d go to the mall where there was a bookstore, usually a Walden Books. (This was before Borders and Barnes & Noble were in every shopping center.) The section devoted to “Film” was one shelf, not a wall. You’d scan the shelf to see where it was. Then, you’d come across its brightly colored thick spine and pull it from the shelf. You’d flip through it excitedly, not being able to wait to get home and devour every page.
I’m talking about the annual ritual of picking up Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion. The first one I ever got was in 1991. It had red and yellow lettering, with Ebert on the cover, doing a thumbs-up pose. I was 12 going on 13 and was already a devotee of Siskel & Ebert. I wasn’t aware Ebert collected his print reviews in book form. When I found out I couldn’t wait to get home and read it cover to cover. And I did. I remember there were lengthy pieces on Marlon Brando (in connection with the summer 1990 release of The Freshman) and escalating movie violence. There was Ebert’s essay on why Goodfellas was the best film of 1990. Considering that that was the movie that made me start to develop my critical voice and want to write about movies, I read that essay with particularly great awareness of its reasoning and phrasing. Mostly, though, I read the book for its reviews. I read ‘em all. I started to make note of certain positive reviews of movies I hadn’t seen and would seek them out at the video store or when I would read the Sunday paper’s weekly TV listings. That’s how I discovered movies like James B. Harris’ Cop and Blue Collar and My Dinner with Andre and Four Friends and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. I would watch the movie and then go back and read Ebert’s review to see if his reaction mirrored my own. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t. (He liked Cop but I loved it. He loved Fellini’s Satyricon, but you couldn’t pay me to see it again.)
And the ritual continued every year, around my birthday. Along with Leonard Maltin’s Home Video Guide, the Movie Home Companion kept me occupied when I should’ve been studying or doing my homework. Being severely visually impaired, I shouldn’t have been reading for long stretches at a time, but I did. (I remember when I discovered the Talking Book Program for the Blind had Ebert’s A Kiss is Still a Kiss on tape. I must’ve listened to it dozens of times, especially his interviews with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, William Hurt, Nastassja Kinski, and Robert Mitchum, and his level-headed defense of Bob Woodward’s Wired.) Ebert’s introductions to each subsequent edition were like yearly dispatches from an old friend. He would end each intro with a list of recommended readings including Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Stanley Kaufmann and other esteemed critics. He wasn’t insecure about having people leave him to discover other voices. He encouraged it. I devoured Kael and Sarris and Molly Haskell. I also read some John Simon. (I’m still debating if that was a good idea.) Eventually, I started seeking out different critical voices on my own. I got subscriptions to both Film Comment and Entertainment Weekly. Ebert taught me not to discriminate, so I appreciated the scholarly tone of Kent Jones and the punchy yet elegant phrasing of USA Today’s Mike Clark and EW’s Owen Gleiberman.
I started to write reviews myself. Like most things you attempt, you start by copying. I eventually developed my own voice that has a penchant for utilizing illuminating alliterations and parentheticals. (I love me some parentheticals.) I don’t write like Ebert. He was a newspaper man through and through and I, sadly, had to come of age during the Dead Trees era. Then again, Ebert didn’t really bother with those kinds of distinctions. He mourned the demise of newspapers, but he also embraced social media early on, as a way to continue writing about movies or, more accurately, he just loved finding ways to continue writing.
Ebert was a writer, a newspaper man, before he was a critic. His voice as a writer is what will be remembered. To dismiss Ebert’s contribution to film criticism because of his participation in the Siskel & Ebert program requires you to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Ebert’s criticism is in print. The show brought a generation (including myself) to the writing, and the writing inspired us to find our voice. (Blaming the TV show for the commercialization of film criticism is akin to hating Jaws and Star Wars because you dread all the copycats that were inevitably going to follow. Denying pleasure is the one thing a critic should never do.) It was hard to watch Ebert struggle with his deteriorating health over the years. It seemed especially cruel when he lost the ability to speak, but he rose to the challenge. His writing toughened over these last few years. He seemed to be less forgiving of movies that only did the bare minimum of what their genre required. (Ebert had been accused of being to forgiving of disposable entertainments. He wasn’t. He just started to demand more.) He used his blog to write about politics, Chicago history, his personal life, and movies. It always came back to writing about movies because they allowed him to write about everything else. Ebert lost his ability to speak, but he never lost his voice. Roger Ebert. One voice for all to hear.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.