I met Roger Ebert twice in my life, not that I would have expected him to remember me at all on either occasion. Both times were at the Toronto International Film Festival during points in my life where I decided that I had to be professional and play it cool. Two years ago on the first day of the festival, Mr. Ebert was sitting in the lobby of the downtown Intercontinental Hotel with his wife Chaz awaiting their driver for the day to take them to their first destination. It was well after Roger had his voice largely taken away from him due to the cancer that ultimately claimed his life this week. They were both charming and gracious, engaging in inconsequential small talk about places they wanted to visit during the week. Neither of us talked about movies. We talked about life. The second time was in passing inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox last year and was of such little memorable content that I won’t bore you guys with it.
My greatest memories of Ebert – outside of television where he and his partner and the also gone too soon Gene Siskel would entertain and keep me in suspense every week because I wondered if I would agree with them or not, quite often sight unseen with regard to the films they reviewed – was through a different writer entirely.
While I was in high school I was selected to go to a young writer’s conference where Stephen King was going to be giving feedback on writing submitted by schools from all over the state of Massachusetts in a one-on-one setting. At the time I found myself doing the same thing I go now: dabbling in essays and short fiction that I love working on and making my bread and butter as a film critic. It was the first job I ever had with a lot of jobs in-between, and I couldn’t imagine being anything else.
When I was brought into the room with King for my ten minutes alone with him, he praised my writing quite kindly and gently, but he was really taken by the reviews that were in my portfolio; ones that I had done for a little newspaper called The 21st Century. He looked up from the reviews and asked if I have ever read any of Roger Ebert’s writing.
I think my reaction, given that I was 15 at the time, was “What? The TV guy? He writes?”
King went on to explain to me his love for Ebert’s writing. He told me that Ebert wasn’t just a film critic, but one of the best American writers that ever lived. (I know that’s not the direct quote he gave, so if I botched that, feel free to correct me, Steve.) He said that the reason Roger was so great was because he was never afraid to put any of himself into his writing. Not a single review that he produced was devoid of personality, and sometimes they typified what going to the movies should be all about: an emotional reaction regardless of how positive or negative it was in the end.
Aside from King suggesting that I bring a lot of the emotion that I had in my fictional work into my journalism, I was intrigued since I always doubted those two characters would have had anything nice to say about each other at all. And that was when I started to realize that it was hard for people to not like or at least respect Ebert. Not many people in this line of work get far by being jealous, although it would have been easy to think that about Ebert thanks to the access he got. He was almost unilaterally respected throughout the film world for a special blend of warmth, realness, intellect, and talent that so many aspire to, but few ever achieve.
I went to the library the following Monday and took out every book of his that I could. He became my gateway to the writings of Sarris, Kael, and Goddard, names I wouldn’t have known of otherwise outside of the regular beat writers and TV personalities I had familiarized myself with. It was the early days of the internet, so his early reviews available to be certain, but not as easy to come by. And in those moments reading under my blankets at night, sometimes in fear of my father unexpectedly flying into an abusive rage or my mother being too drunk to stand, I read about films both good and great that I made it a mission to watch and make an opinion of on my own.
I walked away from film criticism for a good chunk of my life after the death of my parents and some other really nasty shit went down, but Ebert always remained. Whether it was on television or online or a new book, his was a voice that I always wanted to hear. It was never one that I waited on with baited breath because I always expected him to be there. When I came back to writing and I started to lose more and more time to read everything that was out there that I wanted to read, his was one of the few I never abandoned.
I envied his writing so much, although I know deep down that no one else could have ever done what he did. He taught the general public why criticism in general was important in our daily lives. He showed them that despite all of us being a sometimes ornery bunch with violent and sometimes deeply personal disagreements, that we could actually still remain friends and maintain a sense of closeness. No one exemplified that more than Roger and Gene. They knew that films were not the end of the world. They could divorce themselves from their jobs with the skill all great professionals need to succeed and excel.
Ebert also proved to the mainstream that any critic worth their salt learned by doing. He would write for film and television. He would write essays about unrelated topics that always kept him sharp and a fair bit more personable than a stand-offish academic that would keep emotions and feelings at arms length. He wasn’t only about analysis, but about feeling. At his most adoring and his most bilious, Ebert was always clear about his intentions and thoughts. And quite often if he was wrong, he would be the first person to admit it. He would engage in discussions about everything from health care reform to the artistic merits of video games, and regardless of the arguments that came back at him, he always responded with respect for the person opposing him.
So many people today since his passing have said that Roger Ebert was one of the biggest reasons they became a film critic. I am no different. In the back of my mind I hear the sounds of thousands of typewriters around the world – people who knew Roger or never met him even for a moment – all forming a chorus to an end that I think he would have appreciated. It is the sound of an entire community coming together with the sound of replicating a feeling.
And much like it’s sometimes impossible and something that even escaped Mr. Ebert at times, taking on such a task is as insurmountable as memorializing something everyone made out to be somewhat ethereal and unattainable from the start.
One of the most gutting things I ever witnessed was the show where Roger was paying tribute to his late co-host. He said that Gene always ended all of his interviews with people by asking them the same question: “What do you know for sure?” The response was everything this man knew and loved about someone who was so close to him that their public personas became forever intertwined. It showcased everything that made Ebert special to begin with. It was heartfelt and sincere, and it showed that beyond all things, he was human. It was his most endearing quality.
I heard the news of Ebert’s passing this afternoon and I had to almost immediately go for a walk. The new eternal question ringing in my head:
What did I know for sure?
Well, I know that things aren’t great for me, Roger, but then, now, and forever you have gotten me through a lot of rough times. It might seems strange to say that to a critic of any kind, but you were the one who made it cool to do what we did. It hit me hard the other day when you posted that you were taking a leave from your daily writing, not because the cancer that took you from us had returned, but because it echoed something I had been feeling myself. I was burnt out. I still am. It’s hard to acknowledge that the man who might as well have been wearing a giant S on his shirt alongside a flowing cape in this industry could ever slow down. It was a wake up call.
Did you know, Roger? Did you know this was coming so soon and suddenly? Is that why you wrote that piece? Much like everything you produced, your timing was impeccable. I think I should take a break myself, but sometimes I just don’t know how. Much like everything else you did, something that you said on the way out managed to touch me and make me think seriously and critically.
You taught me that kindness always comes back around and that a sprinkling of well spoken snark goes a long way. You taught me that you can’t talk shit about anything unless you have put the work in yourself. You taught me how to not back down in an intellectual discussion, but to stay tenacious with a sense of respect and love for the discourse at hand. You made me want to be a better writer and to always stay at it. You proved that not everyone can do what you accomplished, but that we in this crazy, sometimes thankless game can strive to always be better than what we are. You taught me that even when you disagree with a critic you generally like to never hold it against them and always find appreciation in their voice. And late in your life you taught me that passion for doing what you love can overcome even the darkest of hours.
We thank you. All of us (and we really appreciate those times you tweeted us and re-tweeted our work). You’ll be missed around the world, and you had a special place in our hearts. But most importantly I can’t end this without doing the biggest thing you taught me. I thank you, Roger. I know it’s bad form to refer to someone who isn’t your closest friend by their first name, but I don’t know how else to do it. I’m not an authority on you and all that you have written or done. Like most I only know the basics or what you felt comfortable sharing. Even that it was more than most ever would. If I went into specifics about all the films you turned me onto we would be here possibly long enough for me to join you. You unequivocally made me who I am, and for that my own personal thanks is positively immeasurable.