The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 12, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Ebert fostered passion for movie artistry

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I was first introduced to Roger Ebert, alongside co-host Gene Siskel, when I was a child in San Antonio, watching the two of them do battle each week on TV.

Aside from their brief credit mentions at the beginning of each episode of "At the Movies," I had no idea that these two existed outside of the confines of our old television set. Yet, watching their give and take, their sometimes playful, sometimes acrimonious arguments regarding the merits of a given film was my first exposure to film criticism.

The two went back and forth, each willing to defend his position while still allowing his partner his say. Most of what they reviewed I was unable to see for various reasons, be it my lack of maturity, age or driver's license. But watching them discuss films stoked my interest in movies and began driving me to be more critical in my thinking about films and filmmaking.

I didn't stumble upon Ebert's writings until the advent of the Internet age. Aside from book collections, his work wasn't available on a regular basis. But once I discovered his writing, I became a true fan.

A lot of credit is given to Ebert for helping to popularize modern film criticism, shifting away from the stodgy, scholarly form that most readers couldn't relate to, and instead opting to write in a more conversational, accessible way. Unlike, say, Armond White, who writes above all but the most educated of readers (and who dismissed Ebert's style of reviewing for the masses, saying "Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism"), Ebert reflected a passion for movies rather than just his thoughts on movies, and thus was able to win over legions of fans throughout his decades in writing and on television.

That is what I take away from my years of reading and watching Roger Ebert. It wasn't the reviews that he wrote or the shows that he starred in; it was the impact he made on multiple generations of film lovers and his encouragement in the developing and the focusing of the critical eye.

Yes, he dabbled in screenwriting for a brief time, and during his battle with cancer that would take his voice, he found a new passion in blogging and on Twitter. But it is on the new free thinkers who didn't just ingest all that Hollywood threw at them -- but actually learned to care about, discuss, analyze and understand the art of film -- who Ebert had the most impact.

I didn't agree with him on many reviews, and I am about as diametrically opposed to his political and religious beliefs as one could get. Regardless of what I felt about the opinion in the center of each piece of writing, I could still read and respect what he had to offer because he argued with both passion and reason. Though I might disagree, I could understand the logic behind his stance.

And at the same time, he made his writing entertaining. Track down his evisceration of Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny," one of his most famous reviews. After Gallo took exception, calling Ebert a fat pig, he responded with another great barb: "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.'" Such was the wit of Roger Ebert.

It was both expected and unexpected when it was announced last week that Ebert had lost his long battle with cancer. Only two days earlier, he sent out a note stating that he was going to cut back his workload, but many expected that this meant that the famously prolific writer would become just slightly less prolific.

That is why it caught so many off guard when he passed away. But I suppose it couldn't have been handled any other way. Ebert lived for the word, and only death could silence his keyboard.

By all accounts, Ebert was a compassionate, caring and nurturing man, willing to take the time to discuss film with any and all who took the time to stop him, and willing to encourage fellow reviewers no matter their stature or status.

Roger Ebert fostered a new generation of movie lovers and movie critics, and his impact will be seen for many years to come. That is his true legacy.