Thursday, April 04, 2013

Farewell, my friend and hero

I saw Roger Ebert on two occasions. The first time was a lengthy interview he conducted with Martin Scorsese at the Wexner Center in Columbus. I remember vividly the ecstatic overload of movie love that poured from both those men. Marty chattered in his unmistakeable mile-a-minute fashion, while Roger probed the director to explore the nooks and crannies of his great career.

The second time was about a year ago at my very first film festival, when I attended Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He seemed frail then and rather slow of step. But that glint in his eye was unmistakeable - he loved the movies shown there, and he loved that hundreds upon hundreds of people had come to experience those movies with him in that huge auditorium of the Virginia Theater. That remains one of my fondest memories.

The journey to the Virginia took root 28 years before I was born. Outside of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, Roger Ebert was the pop culture figure who had the greatest influence on me. All of them were born in June of 1942 - Paul and Roger on the same day, Brian two days later. The stars aligned spectacularly back then, but Roger's influence was maybe the most profound.

He and Gene Siskel didn't get me into movies per se. I always gave my dad the most credit for that, when one day he brought home a stack of tapes that included 2001, Taxi Driver, After Hours and A Clockwork Orange. I took those movies and ran far and fast with them. Once I did, it was Roger leading the charge.

Roger was the one who convinced me that it would be cool to write about movies for a living. And for a while, I got to do that. Not for as long as I would have liked, but I still got to do it, making me luckier than most. And when I wrote - back then and right now, as I type these words - I always thought of Roger.

His was a conversational style that drew the reader toward him - but not beneath him. Roger talked to his readers, not at them. His reviews were always him saying, "Hey, let's chat about movies for a bit." Best of all, he threw himself Into his reviews so much, I felt like I knew him. I felt like he was right there in the room with me. When he wrote, I could hear him. And I wanted people to hear me too. Many of my readers have told me that my reviews are very me, which I take as the greatest compliment. I got that from Roger.

The most important gift Roger gave was his empathy. He played fair, and he was reasonable. He could be vicious if he wanted to be, but he wielded not so much a cutting tongue as a keen wit. One of my favorite slams of his came from his review of Exit to Eden.

"On the first page of my notes, I wrote, 'Starts slow.' On the second page, I wrote 'Boring.' On the third page, I wrote, 'Endless!' On the fourth page, I wrote, 'Bite-size Shredded Wheat, skim milk, cantaloupe, frozen peas, toilet paper, salad stuff, pick up laundry.'"

But Roger was at his best when he wrote about how good a movie was, or about how movies should be seen. Today, too many people treat movies like chewing gum. Even if they like it, they tend to forget about it after they're done with it. People don't treat movies with enough respect. How else to account for all the impolite talkers and cell phone users (of all ages) in theaters?

Even the people who make the big blockbusters tend to be cavalier about them. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but I wish Hollywood had more ambitious goals than making licenses to print money. Roger once wrote:

There is nothing wrong with a large audience, nothing wrong with making money (some of the best films have been the most profitable), but there is something wrong with the calculation. If the magical elements in a movie - story, director, actors - are assembled for magical reasons - to delight, to move, to astound - then something good often results. But when they are assembled simply as a package, as a formula to suck in the customers, they are only good if a miracle happens ...

We have, after all, only so many hours in a lifetime to see movies. When we see one, it enters into our imagination and occupies space there. When we see movies that enlarge and challenge us, our imaginations are enriched. When we see dumb movies, we have left a little of our better selves behind in the theater."

Roger Ebert left our world on Thursday, but he left his best self behind in his words about movies. If we can see the movies through eyes like his, we - and the movies - will be all the better for it.


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