For the longest time, I never really knew what it felt like to lose an idol. My list of inspirational figures is fairly short: Robert Christgau and George Orwell are two people who immediately come to mind. Mr. Christgau still writes music journalism so unrelentingly witty, it’ll make your head spin. Mr. Orwell, meanwhile, passed away before I was born, and I grew to idolize him through his extant, perpetually thought provoking opus Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I understand the feeling now, though. Last week, one of my idols passed away. He inspired me to be a writer and challenged me to think critically, so he has impacted my life on a daily basis for many years. I can say with utmost confidence that he will continue to do so.
I remember scouring his web page as a kid and reading his reviews for hours. I used to scroll through his star ratings to see which movies he liked most, and I (almost) always read the reviews to see why he felt the way that he did. Those reviews, mind you, were things of beauty—insightful, funny, poignant, and critical by equal turns, he favored the colloquial over the cryptic and avoided overly erudite posturing, something most critics struggle with today. He wrote like a genius because he understood that the power of writing rests in its ability to inform, incline, and inspire in an understandable way. Take note, academia.
I also remember staying up until 2 in the morning on Sundays as a middle schooler just to listen to him talk. I watched At The Movies almost every weekend, and I feel lucky to have heard the man behind the writing. He was every bit as intelligent and entertaining in person, and even in declining health, he was always marked with the youthful energy associated with truly loving one’s own job.
Interestingly, I rarely watch movies, and I’ve only seen a handful of classics. I was often more interested in understanding his opinion than I was in seeing the films behind them. Through his show and his writing, he made media consumption start not at the movies, but through his eyes and through his pen. I think it’s safe to say, then, that he helped transform cultural criticism into the force it is today, and that he did so by remaining true to himself. I think it’s also safe to say that I’d be lucky to squeeze a fraction of his wit or his soul into my own writing.
So, next time you read something I wrote in the arts and leisure section of this newspaper, wonder why I read criticism for hours each week and obsessively tweet about the arts, you needn’t ask why. I fell in love with this type of journalism a long time ago, and it’s the one major interest in my life that has never waned. It’s an undying passion that never would have been born without him, and I cannot thank him enough for that.
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.