Remembering Roger Ebert

Last Wednesday Roger Ebert announced on his blog that he'd take a "leave of presence", meaning generally that he'd be writing less, due to the reappearance of cancer in his body. On Thursday, I saw a wire service report about that and put it in this section for the Friday paper. Little did I know. Little did we all know.

On Friday morning, I woke up to the sad news that Ebert, a Chicago-based film critic and probably the most widely-read film writer in the world, had died. He was 70. He'd been writing about movies _ with fire, zest, and unbridled passion _ to his very last days, for 46 years.

As friends, fans and admirers from all over the world contribute pieces in his remembrance, I'd like to take the opportunity to do the same. Ebert's influence reaches far and wide, in the present tense. His ardour for good movies and scathing put-downs for bad ones remain indelible in my memory as if it were the first time I read him 15 or 16 years ago. It would not be too presumptuous to say that I learned a lot from him during my autodidactic years _ learning not just about movies and writing, but about how critical insight can be a form of good journalism. Learning, too, that writing about cinema isn't a trifling, fluffy, inconsequential pursuit practised by second-rate reporters _ a thought that still holds true sometimes in a place that doesn't nurture a strong culture of criticism such as here.

I'm not sure why, but the news of Ebert's death hit me like an early-morning phone call informing the passing of a lovable uncle (and I'm not the sentimental type). I don't know him personally, but because Ebert's presence is so manifest in his writing, not in a show-off way like cocky bloggers do today, I was carried away by the belief that I knew him. The best I did was nod to him; we sat next to each other in a movie at Cannes Film Festival in the mid-2000s, when Ebert was still strong enough to travel. If I remember correctly, I think when I glanced over halfway into the film (I won't mention which film), it appeared that the 60-something Ebert had dozed off. That was a signal for me, an ingenue to this towering reputation, to do the same.

No, actually the best I did was write to him. In 1999, Ebert wrote a vehemently negative review of the film Anna And The King, the version starring Chow Yun-fat as King Rama IV and Jodie Foster and Anna. I started writing film reviews in 1998 and, as I said above, studied his column for its clear, smooth prose and friendly yet firm approach to critical narrative. Ebert's punch in that particular review was vicious, perhaps too vicious, and to me, it's partly indicative that while the man is an indisputable lover of cinema from all over the world _ his love for the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu is so strong it's touching _ his understanding of the Asian culture and social dynamism might be somewhat limited.

I emailed him, saying that I agreed with his verdict of the film (which was deservedly panned) but disagreed with his reading of the cultural context. He replied on his website, but the ephemeral nature of digital publications means that I don't have his response as reference now. Ebert is a popular film writer _ mainstream, as some put it _ but his writing also contains analytical and academic references, all executed in an easy-going vibe that helped him canvass a fanbase of teenagers as well as veteran readers of film criticism. Among his various legacies, most have been discussed in the past few days, what I feel most strongly and personally is the fact that Ebert has proved that "entertainment journalism" _ that umbrella term often sneered at by "serious reporters" _ isn't a petty beat catering to mindless consumers of gossip. It is genuine, substantial content any respectable newspaper should contain. He also showed that writing about movies is to write about culture, politics, economics, religion, emotion, and that a movie writer can be more serious than political writers when they need to be. Ebert's sparring with his supporters and detractors _ in his print and online columns as well as on his Twitter account_ are as intense and knowledgeable as when you follow a Facebook fight of academics on political or social issues.

The first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first to be saluted by a US president upon his death, Ebert worked and lived in Chicago all his life, but his presence was, is, felt everywhere, including here. We'll certainly miss you.


Kong Rithdee is deputy Life editor.

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Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor