By In Stuff

Roger Ebert’s Opening Sentences

I have been working on this for a little while now. I was reading Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews (1967-2007) and, in addition to admiring the man’s utter brilliance, I found myself thinking: This amazing man’s life is in here. And I came up with this idea of taking just the opening sentences from 75 or so of his reviews and putting them into a single story, something to sum up one of the great American writers and wonderful thinkers of our time.

Ebert died earlier this month — on April 4 — and I wanted to put this opening sentence tribute to him up then. But, I simply could not finish it in time.

Here it is a couple of weeks late — a tribute to Roger Ebert in the first sentences of his reviews:

* * *

At first the screen is black. Some movies evaporate so quickly in the memory that their beginnings are already fading before their ends finally come. I want to write this review so that every reader will begin it and finish it.

Life is a little like lion-taming, wouldn’t you say? Kids are not stupid. Kids love to play by the rules. This is strange. We’re instinctively afraid of natural things (snakes, barking dogs, the dark), but have to be taught to fear walking into traffic or touching an electrical wire.

Somewhere at home are photographs taken when I was a child. We walk like ghosts through the spaces of our adolescence. There is a summer in your life that is the last time boys and girls can be friends until they grow up. I can remember what happened to the Lone Ranger in 1949 better than I can remember what happened to me. There was something about going to the movies in the 1950s that will never be the same again.

Sometimes I seek the right words and I despair.

Like many victims of the American education system, I had a dislike for Shakespeare years before I got my hands on anything he had written. My father was an electrician at the University of Illinois. My first car was a ’54 Ford and I bought it for $435. I was a sportswriter once for a couple of years in downstate Illinois. You can only play the field so long.

Surf’s up, and the Beach Boys are singing. Nineteen seventy-three began and ended with cries of pain.

It’s hard to make a good love story. Simple affection is rare in the movies. We like to be in love because it allows us to feel idealistic about ourselves. Sex was more interesting when we knew less about it, when we proceeded from murky impulses rather than easy familiarity. Love stories have beginnings, but affairs … affairs have endings, too.

Sometimes, when I’m happy, I sing to myself.

I go to the movies for many reasons. This movie is awake. Oh what a lovely film. I didn’t want to see this movie. This movie made my heart glad. Oh, this movie is so sad! Now this is what a superhero movie should be.

Characters are never at a loss for words in the movies. The best martial arts movies have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with personal excellence. Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-body experience at a movie. There’s an exhilaration in seeing artists at the very top of their form: It almost doesn’t matter what the form is, if they’re pushing their limits and going for broke and it’s working. I’ve never much liked anti-war films. Movies about movies usually don’t get things quite right.

Sometimes I’ll be looking at someone I know, and a wave of uncertainty will sweep over me.

It must be like this with many people, and not just in Romania.

There must be few experiences more wounding to the heart than for a parent to look at a child and fear for its future. We live in an age of brutal manners, when people crudely say exactly what they mean, comedy is based on insult, tributes are roasts, and loud public obscenity passes without notice. Oh the face of evil can be charming. Con men are more appealing than run-of-the-mill villains, who want to take your money because they are stronger or more dangerous than you are. If the Mafia didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Heaven protect us from people who believe they can impose their will on us in this world, because of what they think they know about the next. There really are guys like this.

This may be a purely personal prejudice, but I do not often find big-scale physical humor very funny.

People who have been damaged by life can make the most amazing adjustments in order to survive and find peace. It’s not supposed to happen this way. If only we were not so rigid, not so unbending in the our minds and bodies we could release our dammed-up human energy in a glooorrrrrious outflowing of love and self realization.

For someone who fervently believes he will never climb a mountain, I spend an unreasonable amount of time thinking about mountain climbing.

Of all the places I have visited, Africa is the place where the land exudes the greatest sadness and joy. Los Angeles always seems to be waiting for something. I have never attended a live ballet performance. I am trying to imagine what it would be like to write this review with my left foot.

Sooner or later, a self-satisfied, sublimely confident computer is going to blow us all off the face of the planet. How would you like to spend the afterlife? Dying is not cheerful, but we need to think it is. When families get together to remember their times together, the conversation has a way of moving easily from the tragedies to the funny things. Which of us cannot remember a moment when we did or said precisely the wrong thing, irretrievably, irreparably? The happy ending, like all cliches, is hard to define.

Louis Armstrong was trying to explain jazz one day, and he finally gave up and said, ‘There are some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ‘em.”

In a hotel like this, we feel, anything could happen.

From time to time you find yourself wondering if there will ever be a movie that understands life the way you’ve experienced it.

* * *

*These are the first sentences from Roger Ebert reviews (in order): Persona; Jail Bait; An Inconvenient Truth;

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; Pixote; Chariots of Fire; The Blair Witch Project.

28 Up; Peggy Sue Got Married; Radio Days; George Washington; The Last Picture Show.


Romeo and Juliet; Wonder Boys; American Graffiti; Hoosiers; Heartbreakers

Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam; The Exorcist

The American President; On Golden Pond; Lucas; Boys Don’t Cry; Betrayal.

Everyone Says I Love You

Princess Mononoke; House of Games; Almost Famous; The Karate Kid; E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial; Leaving Las Vegas; Spider-Man 2.

Fresh; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Star Wars; Being There; Johnny Got His Gun; Day For Night.

Body Snatchers

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Boys N the Hood; The Age of Innocence;         Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam; The Grifters; Casino; Frailty; Goodfellas.

A Fish Called Wanda

Crumb; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; W.R.–Mysteries of the Organism,

Touching the Void

Chocolat; Short Cuts; Peter Rabbit and Tales of Batrix Potter; My Left Foot.

WarGames; Volver; The Barbarian Invasions; Terms of Endearment; Au Revoir les Enfants; The Two of Us.


Twin Falls Idaho

Last Summer

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7 Responses to Roger Ebert’s Opening Sentences

  1. This is found poem in prose. Very good. I’m teary all over again.
    (I hope Chaz sees it.)

  2. Phil says:

    A brilliant tribute using brilliant words compiled brilliantly: I’d have to say I liked this story.

  3. Mark Daniel says:

    I’m a huge fan of Roger Ebert. I have probably read all of his movie reviews over the last 5 years, even though I’ve probably seen maybe 2 non-animated films in that time span. His reviews are enormously entertaining to me, even if it’s a movie I’ve never heard of and that I will never see.

    The two writers whose websites I visited almost daily are Ebert and Joe Posnanski. It’s interesting that at least one of them is a fan of the other.

  4. Mike Burnett says:

    Sometimes, if you’re silent long enough…someone else speaks. Now I can say it, Mr. Ebert. No goodbyes, just good memories…

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