Roger Ebert and the Choice to Spurn Cynicism


The older you get, the harder it becomes to identify your favorites. When you're a kid, you know your favorite color, your favorite superhero, your favorite movie, your favorite everything with absolute certainty. And then you get old, and you understand nuance, and all of a sudden you like red on some days and gold on others, and you couldn't choose between a great comedy and a great drama because you know what comparing apples to oranges means. Roger Ebert, who died last week, remains my favorite film critic. I didn't always feel that way, but I do now, and I feel it with absolute certainty. You don't get that feeling a lot when you're an almost thirtysomething. Ebert's legacy is immense -- not just in the film world, but among many, many writers -- and I won't attempt to try to encompass it here. Others have done it and can do it better than I. Instead, I'll focus on the example Ebert has set for me as a professional and

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a great human. I think of many things when I think of him -- that unmistakable voice, the way his reviews always read like his half of a conversation with me, the way he didn't let his myriad health problems consume him in the final years of his life, but rather persevered to do what he loved and to enjoy the time he had with people whom he loved, namely his wife Chaz. Despite all those big, important things, I also think of Jay Mariotti, who occupied a surely miniscule space in Ebert's life. Ebert eviscerated Mariotti in an open letter when the troll-before-being-a-troll-was-a-thing sports columnist left the Chicago Sun-Times. He jumped from that paper to AOL FanHouse, a mostly-defunct site that I worked on for years. I can't claim to have known Mariotti (or Ebert, for that matter) well. He was not particularly nice to the editorial staff -- and I'm being charitable -- but mostly I just don't know enough for certain about him as a person to

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be too judgmental. I do know what kind of writers Mariotti and Ebert are, though, and there is enough of a lesson in that to render the rest of it moot. I know that both of them are/were talented and prolific. Ebert would write five or six reviews in a week and Mariotti, at least when I worked with him, would churn out five or six columns in the same timespan. Those qualities, and their shared workspace in the Windy City, are where the similarities end, though. Because while Ebert approached writing and movies and life with genuine zeal, Mariotti (again, at least when I worked with him) approached all that stuff with extreme cynicism. While Ebert -- having seen countless films -- could still deliver an enthusiastic thumbs-up for The Cabin in the Woods, Mariotti spent most of his time calling for this coach to be fired, that athlete to go to jail -- calling for anything that would be sure to upset the most amount of people. The lesson, to me at least, is that with enough talent you can make something of yourself, but that doesn't mean you are guaranteed to make something meaningful out of your talent. Ebert made something -- many things, actually -- meaningful out of his life. That all by itself is a tremendous legacy.