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Roger Ebert is Everywhere: The Writers Remember His Legacy

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To mark the second anniversary of Roger Ebert’s passing, we asked our writers to answer one question: What do you think Roger’s legacy is now almost two years after his passing? The responses were as moving and diverse as the phenomenal staff inspired to keep his torch burning by contributing to this site.

SIMON ABRAMS: I didn't have the opportunity to get to know Roger Ebert very well. But every email I got from him was galvanizing. I wish there were more.

NICK ALLEN: Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be a projectionist for a very special film class at the University of Chicago's Graham School, in the types of gatherings that Roger would famously sell out decades ago (his favored podium is still in use). This particular class' focus was a popular one: "Ebert's Favorite Films," as taught by Adam Kempenaar of the inimitable Filmspotting podcast. And the movies discussed were indeed Ebert's favorites, but Adam wisely chose the titles in which the critic's voice specifically stood out. These weren't necessarily movies that Roger famously wrote about as classically great (many weren't even from the Great Movies collection), but the discussion about whether a chosen film was good, and why Ebert touted it, was always as lively as it was divided. Ramin Bahrani's elegiac "Man Push Cart" was too tedious for some, Kasi Lemmons' enchanting "Eve's Bayou" was too outlandish for others, and Charlie Kaufman's haunting "Synecdoche, New York" was the groan-worthy ode to the middle-aged white man's woe in the eyes of a few. 

But aside from how everyone became a critic of some type to a critic's taste, I was always intrigued by the duality in how Roger Ebert was referenced. Some strictly called him by his first name, talking about his work warmly as if he was their departed pal, who had once made some good points. In the same discussion, others referred to him as Ebert, as if he had already taken on new life as his impactful philosophies. When it comes to discussing names of popular figures (celebs, artists, philosophers etc) it's usually a one-way street. It's either "Oprah," not "Winfrey," or "Freud," not "Sigmund." It takes quite a unique presence to have household recognition as both, (Clint [Eastwood]) comes to mind) but that's Roger's legacy. Though we haven't seen a new review (or even a tweet) from him in a couple years, we've settled into perpetuating his active influence as both departed friend, and film philosopher. But whether known now as Roger or Ebert, the beloved mind's choices of favorites will always be means for a lively debate.

ERIK CHILDRESS: Roger's legacy is now stronger than ever. His spirit in all incarnations of the word looms over film criticism the way Edward Murrow or Walter Cronkite does in broadcast news. Roger is the name that a whole generation of film lovers that he helped inspire can point to as a standard to live up to professionally and even personally. The humanity he translated into words within each film review spilled over into not just further essays he shared but his everyday life. That meant that he saw something grander outside a darkened theatre and was hoping to bring out the light in a world he hoped could have the same magical feeling he felt after the curtain was closed on the big picture.

SEONGYONG CHO: In his memoir “Life Itself”, Roger quoted a sentence from “The Immediate Experience” by Robert Warshow: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” While Roger is sadly no longer with us, he still influences me and others immensely through his reviews and other writings currently available at his site, and many of them have imparted to us that valuable advice which was very helpful to him during the early years of his illustrious film critic career. As I said before in last year, you are still a good teacher, Roger.

OLIVIA COLLETTE: I know this'll sound a little simple, but I honestly believe Roger's legacy is that we're a little kinder towards one another. Though Roger deemed this to be a golden age of film criticism, the concurrent truth is that film criticism is also very saturated. But by and large, critics are tremendously supportive of one another. At ground level, they might be competing for the same kind of work, but that generally doesn't translate into a malicious streak.

Last year, I talked about how Roger had made me a better reader, and in turn, it made me appreciate the work of my peers so much more. This year, after having a proper in-person geek-out with fellow contributor Scout Tafoya (who I collaborated with to create this lovely video), I remember thinking, "I can't do what Scout does, but thank goodness he's around to do what he does." To me, that's the long arm of Roger's legacy.

ODIE HENDERSON: Roger’s legacy is to continue to inspire readers and writers alike with the 45 years’ worth of reviews contained on this site. For readers, his work serves as an educational, informative, entertaining and sometimes debatable collection of the confessions of a movie lover. For writers, Roger provides a master class on being confident in one’s opinions and one’s voice, consensus be damned.

GLENN KENNY: I shared this story on my blog, when the news of Roger’s death was announced two years ago, but I’ll share it one more time, because it’s crucial to where his legacy lands for me:

In September of 2002, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was invited to a small dinner celebrating Denzel Washington’s film “Antwone Fisher.” Because I was the film critic for Premiere magazine at the time, I had a pretty high industry profile, especially with respect to festivals, and so it happened that at the dinner I was positioned almost directly across from Washington, and directly to the right of Roger Ebert. Roger and I had mainly a nodding acquaintance, and, making what was at the time my version of small talk, I waxed dyspeptic on the 9/11 anthology film that was screening at the festival that year. As a New Yorker, I mentioned to Roger, the very existence of the movie made me understand, on an emotional level, just where the religious fundamentalists who had objected to “The Last Temptation of Christ” sight unseen were coming from.

“Well that’s a fine critical perspective,” Roger responded, with no little testy irony. Sure, I said; I understood it was a completely illegitimate critical perspective. I just found it curious the way my disinterested-by-necessity critical perspective was being messed around with by my gut reaction. Roger shruggingly accepted my ultimate point, but insisted that I was allowing myself to get it backwards just a little bit, and that I ultimately couldn’t afford that luxury.

Now that I write for the website that bears his name, I think often of the responsibility implied in his response to my tetchy confession. It’s one reason I’m always grateful for Roger’s example. Although I’d prefer he was still around to argue movies with, and provide further examples. Thanks, Roger.

BARBARA SCHARRES: Roger's living legacy is the community he founded online. He was the pioneer, the catalyst, and the instigator in bringing together people from all over the world for debate, exchange and commentary on films past and present, but also on culture, politics, and life as it's lived in many places.  That community continues and thrives.

PETER SOBCZYNSKI: I think that Roger's legacy is the fact that his presence is just as strong, fresh and vital today to us as it was before his passing. I do not mean this in the "Rebecca" sense that we are stuck in the past and unwilling/unable to go on with our lives, though the number of people who pop up in the comments sections of the reviews to serenely declaim how they are certain that Roger would have reviewed it differently (or, in some cases, that he actually wrote the review) can be frustrating at times. No, what I mean is that the singular influence that he was able to pass on through his life and his work continues to be strong enough to unite a disparate collection of people from around the globe—readers and writers alike—to share their collective love of film and curiosity about the world around them through such outlets as this website and Ebertfest.

Oh yeah, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is still ten tons of awesome jammed into a five-ton-capacity sack... 

COLLIN SOUTER: There are so many answers regarding what Roger's legacy is, so I'll just say that it's a community. So many of us are here (in Chicago reviewing movies) because of Roger and his work as a film critic, journalist and blogger. I see this community at least once a week in the screening room(s) and I see Roger's spirit living on among those those who write with integrity and thoughtfulness. I also see it in the kindness and generosity among the colleagues as we gather together to watch a movie and share in that communal experience.

BRIAN TALLERICO: The question of Roger Ebert’s legacy is complicated for me since it’s something I live with every day as the Managing Editor of the site that bears his name. It is a constant consideration—how the work we do now maintains that legacy. And so not a day goes by that I don’t think about Roger’s impact, his professionalism, and my role in paying homage to both through my work and that of our incredible staff. And yet I think I would still think about Roger every day even if I wasn’t so honored to carry that torch simply because I love film. His influence on film criticism exceeds standard appreciation in that one can easily argue that the way that Roger assessed film changed the way they were made. It is a ripple effect of influence. How many filmmakers now grew up reading Roger’s reviews? And just think of the filmmakers they will inspire in future generations. Everyone who watches a movie feels Roger’s legacy in some small way. Those of us who work at the site that bears his name may feel that professional responsibility more acutely but Roger is everywhere. And he will be as long as film exists.

GERARDO VALERO: I believe Richard Corliss was correct when he stated in "Life Itself" that movie critics should not mingle with filmmakers as to avoid being influenced in their reviews. I also believe Roger was the one exception to the rule and this is a reflection of who he was: a man with a big heart who managed to gain people's trust despite being in an extremely influential and delicate position.

PABLO VILLACA: Roger Ebert is not here anymore. And, paradoxically, I believe he IS here more than he ever was. At each passing day, Roger's legacy grows larger and larger; he still influences writers, critics and filmgoers everywhere. His website still is one of the most formidable places to read about movies and the variety of voices it employs is a testament of how Roger inspired many, many generations. It's really fascinating: although we don't have the unique and amazing pleasure of reading new pieces by Roger, his presence online is so strong it's like he never left. You have to be not only a fantastic writer, but also a remarkable human being to accomplish something like that - and Roger was both. I miss him daily and dearly; and at the same time I feel he's just a click away. And I'll always keep clicking.

ANATH WHITE: Chaz often says, “Roger is still here.” It’s exactly what I think each time, reading or watching the myriad sources I take in daily, when I so often see his name. And it’s the experience I have attending a film festival or meeting people who learn I sometimes write for RogerEbert.com. Virtually everyone has some story of how Roger’s reviews, or “Siskel and Ebert,” or even some chance encounter with him, impacted her or his way of seeing movies—and sometimes even their worldview.

I'll leave to the deepest of film scholars those assessments of Roger's writing about movies generally. Instead I embrace his democratization of movies, the ways his approach threw open the doors, welcoming everyone regardless of background, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, nationality, or other happenstance of birth, to share his lifelong passion. He encouraged the pleasure of watching and knowing something of the process, the story, the moviemakers when you did. And, unlike almost any other critic, he used his high profile to champion greater opportunities for many more people (read: not just white males) to make and tell the range of stories all around us in this complicated world.

Roger's "Chicago Sun-Times" reviews were my late '60s introduction as an Illinois teenager to the study and film-related work I've done throughout my life. But until Ebertfest 2011, when honored to be among the Far-Flungers, I had never met him.

One memory comes back instantly: at lunch, I'm at a table next to Roger's when he taps me on the shoulder, handing over one of his ubiquitous Post-Its. "Go talk to her," it says. I look as he motions toward Khomotso Manyaka, the very young star of "Life Above All" (the luminous South African film nominated by the Academy in 2010 for Best Foreign Language Film). My hidden reaction, a near shudder, arises out of a natural shyness, along with uncertainty over how to speak to a 12-year-old. But I do it, rewarded by Khomotso's broad smile, as she seems to relax a little more in this crowd of grown-ups.

Roger beams approvingly and makes that special motion I'll always associate with him: looking me in the eye, he nods a little and taps his heart.

Yes, Roger is still here.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: A legacy usually refers to something being handed down from the past. But it is difficult to not think about Roger continuing his “leave of presence.” For one thing, the fact that this very website continues on in his name is a testament to his enduring influence but also his lifelong ability to encourage fellow film lovers to find their voices and share their written thoughts with the world. His tradition of putting the movies first – what other place besides RogerEbert.com attempts to review every release each week, no matter how small or obscure – offers a much-needed thought-provoking forum that stands apart from our celebrity-saturated culture. 

One of the benefits that come from being privileged to participate in carrying on his work is the reaction I receive when I tell people what outlet I write for. Everyone knows who Roger Ebert is. Jessica Chastain’s eyes lit up with admiration when she talked about seeing “Life Itself” and the effect both it and Roger had on her. And, while attending my first-ever Ebertfest last year, I felt Roger everywhere – from the fans in the audience who watched him verbally sparring with Gene Siskel on TV to the eminent filmmakers such as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Bennett Miller who participated in part because Roger’s support and keen insights made a difference in their lives and work.

People continue to quote Roger’s reviews and read his books for a reason. He usually wrote not just in the moment but with a purposeful sense of cinema past and future. I regularly come across references to him while researching articles. Just a moment ago, I spied this gem of an observation from filmmaker Adam McKay. Will Ferrell’s frequent collaborator, from 2013:  “How much we miss him. He wrote the worst review of anything I've ever done. And it was so great! We don't care. When you do comedy, you get impervious to good and bad reviews. It was 'Step Brothers' and he claimed it was 'the sign of the end of Western civilization.' “

That was the power of Roger. People often felt honored even when he eviscerated their films. I think he will be present for a very long time to come.

ALAN ZILBERMAN: The first important part of Roger's legacy is that he showed us how to appreciate the movies. He showed us how form intersects with purpose, and how it is essential to defend new, exciting voices in cinema. The second, arguably more important part of his legacy is that he showed us how the movies can help us lead better lives. He argued that if movies put us in the shoes of other people, then sensitive movie-goers will have more compassion and tolerance.

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