Going to college is obviously strange in a lot of ways, but one aspect that isn't talked about much is that when you’re old enough to be attending college, you’re stuck in between generations. The older generation’s stars are slowly dimming and the news ones are rising, and it’s not entirely clear what’s going to happen next.
Nowhere is the generational disconnect more apparent than when celebrities die. When the voices that defined previous generations, such as the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, die, it becomes apparent from the various obituaries and postmortems that pop up all over the Internet that this hits people of a certain age a certain way. But it certainly didn’t hit me. The pop culture that I live in has absorbed and reabsorbed the influence of the Beastie Boys so many times that their music doesn’t have the same punch for me that it did for, say, my dad. The situation was similar with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and others. I couldn’t “feel” their deaths.
Not so with Roger Ebert, who died today at age 70 after a prolonged public battle with cancer. I hadn’t looked at my phone for about an hour when I checked Facebook at 3:00 p.m. and when I was greeted with “RIP Ebert” statuses I almost screamed. I had the same reaction as author John O’Hara when he found out about George Gershwin’s death: “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to!”
Ebert’s health troubles were no secret. He hadn’t eaten, drank or talked since 2006, when the lower part of his jaw was surgically removed. As an excerpt from his recent memoir Life Itself, reposted today by Salon, makes clear that Ebert had certainly accepted the looming possibility of his death. But I had grown so used to seeing him in my Twitter feed (his reaction to Obama’s 2012 convention speech was particularly memorable) and checking his website for reviews of great movies new and old, that a world without his writing seemed unimaginable.
I'm not the only one who feels that way. One tweet from the deluge today called Ebert’s death the least controversial in the history of Twitter. Everyone in my feed, whether they were fellow critics or just normal people who enjoyed watching movies, was despondent and in awe of his legacy.
With that aforementioned generational divide as a given, Ebert’s death certainly doesn’t seem like the kind that should strike a chord with me or so many of my peers. He was a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, which meant way back when physical newspapers were a thing that people read, he was the person that my parents’ generation went to for advice on what movies to see. People calibrated their own movie taste in relation to Ebert’s, so they’d know how to interpret his reviews. My aunt, for example, once told me that her favorite movies were ones that Ebert gave two or three stars to. She knew that such a rating meant a movie that she would enjoy, one that would entertain her without confusing or shocking her.
The crazy thing is, I did the same thing. I went to Ebert’s reviews when I wanted to decide what movies to check out of the library, or when I had just seen a movie and wanted him to help me process my thoughts. If he had been able to write one, I would probably have checked out his review of Shane Carruth’s buzzed-about indie film Upstream Color before going to see it. Think about how weird that is for a college kid to say in 2013. These days, the most consistent recommendations that people take for what movies to see or what music to queue up on Spotify are from their friends. But Ebert was universal. His well-written reviews and accurate-but-unpretentious appraisals set a new standard for cultural criticism. Luckily, his work lives on in the form of his easily accessible website.
I am not a film critic by any means, but anyone writing about culture would do well to learn from Ebert’s example. As he says in an unearthed 1991 Playboy interview with him and Gene Siskel, “I go to the movies expecting a good time.” Even though his negative reviews are somewhat legendary, the joy that he took in his subject stayed with him until the very end of his life. After all, his last written words were “see you at the movies."
Whatever I do with my life, I hope I enjoy it half as much as Roger Ebert enjoyed watching movies and writing about them.