In the Age Before Children I lived in Chicago. It was a heady time, and I spent my weekends doing things that now seem decadent: sleeping past ten, going to bars at midnight, seeing movies whenever I wanted.
Movies are a special form of entertainment in Chicago, where the biting wind off Lake Michigan makes it miserable to be outside many months a year. So one of my favorite weekend rituals was tuning into Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s movie review show and then deciding what movie I wanted to see. Like many Chicagoans, I learned to love the unlikely duo. They were witty, insightful, and often combative on the show. But most of all, they were accessible. Their simple thumbs-up/ thumbs-down rating system became a popular shorthand. They brought film criticism to average people and encouraged moviegoers to trust their responses.
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you,” Ebert is quoted as saying.
I agree with him, and I feel the same way about books.
When it came to movies, I saw eye-to-eye with Ebert more often than Siskel, so I knew that when Ebert gave something an enthusiastic thumbs up, it was a movie I couldn’t miss.
After moving from Chicago, I started a family and my moviegoing came to an abrupt halt. For about five years, I mostly watched The Wiggles and Finding Nemo. I stopped keeping up with Roger Ebert and his weekly film updates. I re-discovered him years later on Twitter, where I stumbled across his blog. Clicking over, I was shocked to see how different he looked after having his face reconstructed following a bout with cancer.
Ebert got his start in journalism and spent forty years working at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was the first movie critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Despite his roots in print journalism, the blogosphere suited him well, particularly after cancer robbed him of the ability to speak. He became and avid Twitter user, amassing a huge following a devoted readership for his blog.
Why the popularity? Personally, I loved reading Ebert’s tweets and essays. He could be funny and sarcastic, but that’s hardly unusual on social media. I think the real reason people followed him was because of his humanity. He wrote candidly about his struggle with alcoholism, his battle with cancer. He would stick up for causes he believed in, as well as the movies that championed those issues. Often, he got past the snark and mean-spiritedness that sometimes prevails on the Internet and offered something better.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” he once said.
Words to live by.
Ebert posted his last blog on April 2, the day before the 46th anniversary of his going to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. In his essay he reflects on his career and says,
“Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
–Roger Ebert, 1942-2013