I loved Roger Ebert. He made me love film when I first watched him and Siskel on PBS on Sunday afternoons here in Los Angeles. Roger Ebert helped to give me my own critical voice through mere osmosis. That one hour of (public) television made me so happy. How many other junior high schoolers watched these men wrestle with their own impressions of a specific film, and then cross swords with the other's opinion, only to finally realize that this was how educated and informed adults could have a proper disagreement or discussion on a film, book, or topic of the day. No wonder so many of us today are bloggers!
His was an opinionated, erudite and critical voice, one that sought to be deeply informed about film (and its 100-year history), yet he fully resonated with his readership and millions of viewers because we could see that Roger Ebert liked people as much as he loved film. Good film, the kind that put butts in seats and influenced generations and politicians and started movements. He hated film that wasted one's time, was made like (Studio) sausage with six screenwriters, or was just a hot mess from questionable conception to poorly executed delivery. Though he did like to be titillated. Over the many years of watching Gene and Roger, many a Sunday I could see a thumb going up (pardon the pun) because there was a saucy vixen crossing her long legged limbs on some auteur's vision/version of Last Tango.
When I was 12 or 13, I would trudge down to the video store with my list of 3 or 4 or 5 videos that Siskel and Ebert said were de rigueur (when video stores were a small cottage industry, full of moms and pops and sons and daughters hawking their wares faithfully, in stores located next to the hairdresser or the vet or the Carvel Ice Cream), and then trundle back with my "Citizen Kane," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Mean Streets" to watch that week. My mom (dear mum) and I would bring a dozen videos with us to her little place in Lake Tahoe that Roger would have been proud to sit down and watch with us. From the ages of 12 - 19, my film school curriculum came straight from Professor Ebert; I humbly submit that I was his best student.
Roger was a well known multi-hyphenate as writer, columnist, screenwriter (yes, once), and television personality. He hosted his own film festival, and was extremely influential on many, many filmmakers, writers, educators, academics, and studio executives. Roger's trademarked "thumb's up" meant money ... er, let me clear my throat, Dear Reader, millions for Hollywood when they had his imprimatur.
He was also a fighter. Like my mom, when he got to a certain age, his hair grayed, he fought an illness, and he had to take some time away from the limelight for a bit. And, like my mom, even when he struggled with his physical limitations, he never gave in to feeling sorry for himself. Her stroke was his debilitating cancer. Though he struggled with this radical transformation in his life, he remained a happy, smiling, wide-eyed optimist about things happening in his life, especially his lovely bride, Chaz Hammelsmith who was there before during and after his diagnosis, surgeries and daily struggles post-surgery. As one who watched his career with great eagerness, I was delighted to see his personal happiness quintuple when he met and eventually married Chaz later in his life.
Though I totally and completely in every way possible disagreed with his politics, when I write a film review, I still find (some 20 years on) that my own attempt at film criticism is a lame effort to echo Roger's highly skilled Pulitzer Prize-winning voice. Imitation (impersonation?) being the highest form of flattery, what more can I say but that I wish more film critics and journalists had his skill with the word and love for his craft.
I never met Roger, but he did answer a couple of my emails. Made my freakin' day, I'll tell you that much. I've met, known, and run into hundreds of "celebs" in my time here in Los Angeles, but those emails from Roger, though small, meant a great deal to me to be sure.
Roger made film come alive for me. Would that we had another 70 years of his influence. I'm glad for the time he was here. Chicago was lucky to have the man to themselves.