Roger Ebert’s death feels personal to me. He wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, one of my hometown papers, he went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where I attended, and I grew up knowing that if a film was worth seeing, Ebert would show me the way. His film festival, The Overlooked Film Festival in his hometown of Champaign, IL, was the first film festival I ever attended. I always wanted to meet him, and take a picture with him and Ang Lee (another Illinois alum) with the caption: Illini at the Oscars.
I trusted his good reviews as much as I delighted in his bad ones. Ebert was a lover of film, and with this love, he masterfully read any film that didn’t meet the high standards for what he knew film could be. My favorite bit of reading from the Ebert Library came when Vincent Gallo responded to Ebert’s no stars review of “The Brown Bunny” by calling him fat, and by cursing his colon. Ebert calmly stated: “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.'” Gallo then edited the film, and Ebert reviewed the redux, giving it three stars. The purpose of critique isn’t to destroy, after all, but to maintain standards.
I remember this as I find myself at yet another crossroads in how I want to approach my own writing. I am a writer, an aspiring filmmaker and a social justice educator, and at times it feels like these charges are in service to different masters. The writer wants to express themselves without boundaries or restrictions. The filmmaker wants to be free to make work without the burden of critiquing other artists, while the educator wants to start a dialogue about the intersections of identity and media, and one way to do this is to point out when these intersections are not addressed well, harmfully, or not at all.
With social media, blogs, vlogs and so on, everyone can be a critic. Anyone can create a platform rooted in their individual approach to shitting on something. There are a lot of noisy naysayers out there, and the targets of their onslaughts often deemed them “haters.” And maybe they are. What made Ebert such an amazing critic is that his love for film was obvious, even when talking about “The Last Airbender” (2010), a film that his said was “an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” As I shift my writing voice from critical to creative, I hope that more people see Ebert’s career as a challenge to have a loving obsession with the medium of their choice, and a commitment to crafting your critiques so masterfully, that they inspire not just ire, but growth.