“No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough.” Banded about perhaps more than any other on my Twitter timeline in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death, this quote struck me as the most succinct summation of my experience of writing this weekly column, which was first published precisely one year ago. I’ve wondered for a while now, in the approach to this milestone, what I might say to mark it, what words I might offer to summate the experience of 53 Sundays and 578 films. In the spirit of Ebert’s unabashed honesty, I will say that there have been too many bad movies, none of them short enough, to allow me to claim that it’s been a consistent pleasure.
I was in the midst of writing a review when I learned of his passing, and it occurred to me how both of these actions seemed equally indebted to his birth. It’s hyperbolic, of course: he was not the sole influence on my attraction to criticism—that was the movies themselves—but he was implicit in my learning how to be a critic. I remember with a fondness I would never have imagined at the time staring at the flickering cursor on a blank white screen and willing the words to appear to express the things each film had made me feel. So many were the times I turned to his reviews for inspiration. How had he approached this film? Where did he start? What did he think to say, and how did he think to say it? Like any fledgling writer, I found my voice through mimicking another’s, and departing from it one tiny step at a time. He taught me most of all that there was no formula for writing a review; it should be as new and different an experience as is each film, guided less by some formal shape as it is by the shape of the impression the film leaves on the viewer.
He was one of the small group of critics whose philosophy informed my own, particularly at that transitive time where I came to view movies less as weekend entertainment than as impactful art, and—crucially—when I came to understand that communicating my burgeoning love of them was as valid and as valuable a calling in life as anything else. It was through his relentless belief in the incomparable influence a great movie could make on our lives, and through seeing that influence being made in every last person he turned toward such an experience—myself more than once included—that I saw there was no shame in wanting to spend every spare second of my own life seeking out such experiences and bringing them to others. Few understood this when I opted to go to college to study film, and that’s alright: I almost didn’t myself. I’ll always fondly recall the first time my family came to visit. My mother, seeing how happy I was, understanding—perhaps for the first time—that my devotion to this path was entire, gave me one of his books and told me to one day write my own.
I am both too young and too un-American to have known him for his television appearances. It was through his remarkable adaptation to the internet that I came to encounter his work: the treasure trove of reviews his website offered, each given prime position on the respective films’ IMDb pages; the myriad blog posts, tailoring his wittily incisive takes on cinema to all other avenues of life; the indomitable social media presence, through which he saw fit to embrace video on demand with more warmth and wisdom than any of his peers. His Facebook fans will know well the Netflix recommendations he made nightly before taking to bed, turning his thumbs to a new distribution model that finally allowed his readers the consistent access to a range of world cinema and documentary that theatres had scarcely provided. I felt such pangs of pride when my weekly picks would coincide with one of his recommendations, and such stern indignation when he would instead tout something I saw as inferior. Even in disagreement he spurred me on, prompting me to voice my opinion all the louder.
Through all the bad movies, never short enough, endured in the year I’ve written this column, there has been nothing to overturn the elative sense of triumph when a reader takes a recommendation to heart and finds in it the same transcendent power for which I felt compelled to champion it. “We must try to contribute joy to the world,” Ebert wrote in his memoir Life Itself. It is because of him that I know this can be achieved by something as simple as suggesting somebody watch a movie. A week ago I did not know what I would say to mark this milestone. Now, in an effort to say how important he was to my reaching it at all, I have said too much. With his death, casting as big a shadow over all subsequent film criticism as did his life, Ebert again gives me words and the will to write them. Of the 21 films on offer this week, he reviewed all but three. On several we disagree, but on the best we are unanimous. Two were inducted to his Great Movies selection, and between these two I struggle to choose my primary recommendation. I will read his essays, and in them—as in every word of his I ever read, whether agreed with or not—I will find inspiration.