I met Roger Ebert in 2010, but, like most people who’ve written something about him in the days following his death, I’ve known of him for much longer. He and Gene Siskel, along with Mr. Rogers and the Sesame Street gang, were part of my afternoon television childhood. Unlike Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and the amiable folks who lived in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the portly, bespectacled Ebert and his tall, balding companion were my antagonists, using their opposable thumbs to strike down or damn with faint praise whatever theatrical entertainment happened to pass my fancy from one week to the next.
I’ve always been a moviegoer. With the exception of its first three years, when I lived in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, my childhood was lived within the shadow of the local multiplex, which was so close to home that I was eventually trusted to walk myself to it. Within driving distance are relics of America’s film-obsessed past: a dollar theater, a repertory house with a theater organ, and a drive-in that still plays that cutesy “Lets Go to the Movies” jingle between every movie. My mother introduced me to At the Movies as an exercise in critical thinking. This was important, because while children are more intelligent than most filmmakers would assume, the sheer largeness of a theater screen and the images projected onto it often win out over quality. Even if I went to a movie like Street Fighter with my mom and enjoyed it, the level of conversation I was able to have about that movie and those that followed improved, from “I liked it!” to “I liked it because,” which, really, was what At the Movies asked of its audience.
Growing up in Detroit, and in a family that subscribed to the New York Times and The New Yorker but not the Detroit Free Press or Detroit News, I can’t tell you that I read much of Roger Ebert’s film criticism, or even that I kept up with him after the passing of Gene Siskel and the ceding of his place on At the Movies to Richard Roeper. I didn’t. I read my first Ebert review in late 2008, several months after I’d started reviewing movies on my old personal blog, Careful With That Blog, Eugene, when I realized that posts about popular culture drew a bigger audience than posts about collegiate angst. I began reading his work out of shrewdness: if I was going to make a go of online film criticism, why not sit at the foot of the master? A link to his still-new blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, was at the side, and I clicked it.
I’m not particularly given over to jealousy, especially in matters related to the internet, but I was sick with envy pouring through the archives of Ebert’s blog. It was everything I wanted as a nebulous online author: funny, personal, insightful, containing an informed, intelligent commentariat that spanned nations, political ideologies, and experience. I began commenting in October, first as “Paul Rodgers,” then as “Paul A. Rodgers,” and finally as “Paul Arrand Rodgers,” using my full name as an authorial avatar for the first time. My posts on the labyrinthine, impossible to fully follow comment threads were snark-laden and often only a shade or two more mature than those from folks who came to the blog mostly to disparage Ebert’s political beliefs, his disfigurement, or his brief, fruitful career as Russ Meyers’ screenwriter. As an example of my sharp, 20-year-old wit, I referred to stamp collecting as a “dangerous, sometimes zesty enterprise,” to explain the United States Postal Service’s decision to erase the cigarette from Bette Davis’ hand on a stamp that sought to celebrate her image while simultaneously applying a fig leaf over one of its signatures. In the midst of the drummed-up controversy over Ebert’s review of Tru Loved, I posted a question about his review of the subtly named teen sex comedy Sex Drive, which also came out that week, and he responded:
I hate to change subjects, but your review of Sex Drive has me panicked.
I’m pudgy, I have zits, and most people say that I have a winning smile. If I leaned up against a GTO, odds are, I’d look pretty damn cool.
Despite all that, I’m still a virgin. And I’m 20.
Twenty! The best two years of my life are gone, and I’m standing on the brink of packing it in so I can begin searching for the elusive action figure of Steve Austin’s boss.
What am I doing wrong?
Ebert: You are thinking of a GTO instead of a Golden Hawk.
Had At the Movies‘ exercise in critical thinking been the only service Roger Ebert provided me, his influence on my life would have still been important, the notice of his death still sad. But I was twenty, I was impressionable, and a man with a much larger platform than I, who personally read every comment posted to his blog, began replying to my comments on a semi-regular basis. At that age, the attention was something of an intoxicant, and Ebert’s stature grew from critic and blogger that I envied to literary hero. Though I never bought into Ebert’s Home Video Companion, a quick scan of my bookshelves reveals that I own more books by him—from A Kiss Is Still a Kiss to Your Movie Sucks—than by any save Atwood, Dickens, Lessing, and Woolf. Though some of my heroes are yet living, and some, like Atwood, maintain a vigorous presence on social media, the idea of engaging in conversation with one of them seemed an impossibility until I found myself part of a group of folks—S.M. Rana, Marie Haws, Tom Dark, and many more—who were quickly gaining notice as the most intelligent bunch of blog commenters around. I dug deeper into the archives, reading his interviews, watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, finding worn copies of out of print collections at used book stores, and my respect and admiration of this critic I’d never met, who was so open about his sufferings, his passions, and his ecstasies, continued to grow.
Beyond the multiple kindnesses he paid me—my first publication was within the pages of his The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker, posted a link to my blog in an essay about the writing he’d discovered through the comments on Roger Ebert’s Journal, signed a copy of The Pot and How to Use It as a wedding gift to my sister and insisted he pay postage, and, once he set aside his initial prejudices about the platform, followed me on Twitter—the best reason I’ve come up with for my attraction to the man and his work, the profound sadness of this past Thursday and the reflective state I’ve been in since, is that Roger Ebert was a mentor to me, and with him goes a great, guiding hand that has invisibly pushed and prodded my writing and my attentions for the past five years. Plenty of bloggers and film critics have said much the same over the course of this weekend, often with the same caveat that I must now offer: despite that meeting in 2010, I did not know Roger Ebert, not personally.
But I knew him as an author, the same way I am able to know Virginia Woolf as an author. The sheer volume of Ebert work that exists online, in newspapers and magazines, and between the covers of innumerable books is enviable, but also illuminative of how one may lead a life of letters, how one can live beyond the circumstances dealt by age or disease, and how one can flout the oft-made claim that a Midwestern life is provincial and unimportant. Last year, in addition to prepping his usual collections of reviews, collaborating on a documentary film based upon his 2011 memoir Life Itself, and posting one or two blog entries a week, Roger Ebert filed over 300 movie reviews to the Chicago Sun-Times, on deadline and on a staggering variety of films. In remembering him, Werner Herzog called Roger “a tireless soldier of cinema,” and, while that’s true, I don’t think he goes quite far enough. Roger Ebert was a tireless soldier of The Word—written down and spoken aloud—and his passing marks the end of an era in that there are no great American newspapermen left. That wit, that verbosity, that drive to produce and produce and produce is gone. There are few remaining voices in the American media, just those who are paid to produce artless pablum, and the voiceless who eat it up out of habit.
I have to admit to feeling a huge swelling of guilt as I write this, for in death, Roger Ebert has (or at least should have) shamed a legion of authors who claim not to have the time necessary to undertake this enterprise. Jim Emerson, his longtime web editor, wrote that Roger left three film reviews to be published as needed, the last of which was filed on March 15, this being presumably after he found that a hip fracture suffered earlier in the year was a recurrence of the cancer he’d been fighting for over a decade. And then there’s the matter of his last blog post, where he writes excitedly about the future of his newly redesigned website and the possibilities of reviewing only those movies that he finds of particular merit. He was receiving radiation treatment for his cancer. He was entering hospice care. He was writing, tireless. I am also guilty of not following Roger as closely as I once did. I commented with less frequency on his blog and to his Twitter updates sometime after EbertFest 2010, and was informed of his hip fracture by a friend. The last contact I had with him was via e-mail in December, when I asked him if he’d do me the honor of providing a blurb on an e-book collection of reviews from this site. He politely declined, offering instead to tweet out a link to a post of my choosing whenever I wanted. Shortly after announcing his hip fracture, he did:
Paul Rodgers has many categories of Bests that stretch a boring formula. http://t.co/pIbhgKGm
— Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) January 2, 2013
This, I think, is how mentors work: they enter your life for a brief period, influence you profoundly, and have their role reduced by time or distance or responsibility, leaving the door open for further correspondence as needed. Roger Ebert was one of these figures for me, but he was eternally busy, so I took care not to trouble him much. In lieu of recollections of his boisterous laugh echoing through the Lake Street Screening Room or a great deal of personal correspondence, all I can offer is the handshake I shared with my unknowing mentor at a breakfast held during the 2010 EbertFest. I’ve completely exhausted the story of how I failed to convince Charlie Kaufman that Purple Rain was a “great rock musical” (“No it isn’t,” he said, and walked away), but have rarely mentioned the brief moment I had with the party’s host. He entered the room with his wife, Chaz, and made his rounds. When he came to me, he shook my hand and I told him my name. His eyes went wide and he pointed at me in recognition and patted my arm. “I know you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you long,” I said, “but I just wanted to thank you for your encouragement.” He folded his hands and bowed a little, then broke away to greet the rest of the crowd at the breakfast. It was, after all, his happening.
As Esquire and Oprah and his memoir expanded his portfolio perhaps beyond even the salad days with Gene Siskel and exposed his growing prowess as an author and a human being, Roger Ebert’s Journal, for a few years my online second home, faded from view, and my plans to go to EbertFest in 2011 and 2012, like so many trips to visit my ex-professors in Cincinnati, evaporated due to school commitments and financial shortfalls. But I liked checking in on the blog from time to time, reading his reviews after I’d posted mine, engaging in silent debate. I liked knowing he was there, in Chicago, encouraging the growth of online film-culture by providing space and coverage to a team of “Far Flung Correspondents” and “Demanders” plucked from the comments section of his blog, or from the blogs he happened to read and enjoy. I occasionally go back and read the posts archived here from before the launch of Fear of a Ghost Planet and know that the improvements I’ve made as a critic and an author were a response to the first time Roger linked to one of my posts, noting that I was “worthy of joining the conversation.” Writers are notoriously full of self-doubt, and given the review of Funny People he singled out and its comparative quality to the work I produce now, whatever doubts I then held about my worthiness can easily be confirmed by my typos, my amateurish web design, and the way my reviews often came (and still come) months after a film’s initial theatrical release. But I am constantly trying to make myself worthy of that conversation, which will echo long past the death of its host. The balcony may be closed, but the theater remains open.