• Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

“Why does he do it?” I used to wonder in Roger Ebert’s last days, when he was brought in, frail and slow, for a nighttime screening of some nothing studio release at River East 21. With so little time remaining to him, how could he give 100 minutes to something with so little chance of changing his life or coming anywhere close?

Of course, the movie hardly mattered; what held out the prospect of changing his life was the time he spent knocking out the review, working inside a format that he’d used thousands and thousands of times but that never seemed to preclude self-discovery. The guy was relentless. It seems insane now to think that yesterday morning I passed a Sun-Times box displaying the story “Ebert Isn’t Going Away” and a few hours later someone was calling to tell me he had gone away.

I’ve read a great many tributes to Roger in the last 18 hours, many by people who knew him better than I did (the best of them, I think, can be found here). At the same time, his cultural influence was so great I can barely wrap my head around it, especially since I’m in the same business. One thing I will say, though it hardly needs to be said, is that he was a damn good writer, and given the breadth and depth of what he produced in the last few years of his life, the big question I have about him is what he might have done had he dropped movies and turned his talent to some other topic entirely (like politics, to note an obvious strong suit). On the other hand, he had a great gig, one he basically invented himself. When you’ve created something unique, what else can you do but follow through?