I was in my work van, eating lunch in the parking lot of a Taco Bell when the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death came through the pipeline to me via NPR. Spock, the unemotional, logical Vulcan from Star Trek, was dead. My emotional reaction was immediate and surprised me. Some weeks later, Harrison Ford was in a plane crash, a spectacular one, that he walked away from in a fashion befitting Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Again, I had a surprising emotional response. He didn’t die, but it was a close call. Could this man truly be mortal?
Being born in 1979 meant that I was raised with (and perhaps by) a stream of familiar faces belonging to people I would never meet. The television was always on in my house. Going to the movies was (and still remains) one of the most magical of transcendent experiences for me. So naturally, I watched Siskel and Ebert At the Movies on PBS. It’s difficult to look back and ask myself what I got out of the show as a kid. Perhaps I wanted to watch the two hosts argue their opposing viewpoints on films. Maybe I believed that their patented two-thumbs up system was fool proof. More than likely, I watched it because I wanted to see what was coming to a theater near me. I remember watching it religiously around the time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade debuted because I was so excited, and I wanted Gene and Roger to tell me how good it was. I wanted to share the excitement with them.
Sharing his excitement and passion for movies is what Roger Ebert did with his life. Year after year, through his columns and books as well as his TV show, he spilled out his heart on the subject. He was an artist whose medium was art itself, elevating critique to a way of life, a method for connecting to his fellow human beings. Famously, he called movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Through his life’s work, he became an important cog in that machine.
Watching “Life Itself,” the documentary about Ebert, makes it quite clear why I listened to this guy go on about movies for all those years. He was a fellow big guy, joyous, full of passion. A heavy drinker with a love for bars and women. A compassionate free thinker, an unbound intellect, a prolific writer with a no-frills style. Roger Ebert was a role model and a kindred spirit, someone who set the bar high but in an attainable fashion. When he died, I was saddened by the news, but when I watched his movie, I grasped what a huge loss it was.
When you see a familiar face on the screen in front of you, over and over, for years upon years, that person becomes your friend or even a part of your family in a weird way. Despite the fact that they have no idea that you exist, they become an important part of your life. Spock and Indiana Jones are more than just characters in the movies. These are guys we’ve spent countless hours with, sharing their adventures, their trials, their tribulations, their loves, their failures, their lives. They are real to us. This is something that Roger Ebert understood. By sharing that understanding with us, he too became a family member, like an entertaining and informed uncle who dominates the conversation with wit and humor. I am grateful to have spent time with him and to have shared his passion.
If you have ever dug the work of Roger Ebert or if you love film, do yourself a a favor and watch “Life Itself” on Netflix. Keep a box of tissues nearby. You’ll need it.