Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger and Me

In 1989, a then unknown documentary filmmaker named Michael Moore released his first film about his attempts to sit down and have a conversation with then GM CEO Roger Smith about his decision radically downsize the auto manufacturing company’s Flint, Michigan plant in Moore’s hometown. Moore’s earnest style and his signature of breaking the documentarian’s rule of placing himself into the facts of the subject matter marked the birth of a new major filmmaker. As a teenager growing up in Topsham, Maine at the time, it might’ve seemed unlikely that I would care about such a film let alone even know about it. But I did. The reason I did is because of another man named Roger.

Roger Ebert is universally thought of as the pioneer of modern film criticism. Without his efforts it is unlikely a seventeen year old in Topsham, Maine would ever have sought out a documentary about the economic downturn of a Michigan city that he’d never heard of. I hadn’t yet fully developed the obsession with film that Ebert had a very large part in cultivating, but I did watch “Siskel & Ebert & The Movies” almost every Saturday morning to find out what was opening and if it was any good or not.

I learned about “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Last Emperor” and “Blue Velvet” and “Full Metal Jacket” and many movies I might never have known. I loved hearing about them on “Siskel & Ebert”. Of course, much of the appeal was the great tension that would build between the two when they disagreed on something. Also, these professional men brought a very personal style to how they viewed the movies. They were passionate fans of movies in the way many film enthusiasts are. They approached the movies like they wanted to watch them and would choose to watch them even if it weren’t their job to. When they disliked a movie, they were genuinely disappointed to have been let down. Such an occasion wasn’t merely an excuse to exercise their vast knowledge and extreme wit. They did that too, but the place it came from wasn’t journalistic bolstering, it was as if they’d truly been let down. When they liked a movie, on the other hand, they were like kids in a candy store.

When Gene Siskel died in 1999 it was a blow. A piece of my childhood died, and a very important person in Ebert’s life was gone. But Ebert persisted until the end.

I learned of Ebert’s passing during a very busy day that had little to do with the passion we shared. It wasn’t a surprise to me. He’d been struggling with health issues for the better part of the last decade. His first bout with cancer started in 2002 and left him not too much worse for the ware, but when his salivary cancer reemerged in 2006, complications during surgery left him out of commission for the first time in his career and eventually required the removal of his jawbone and his speech.

Upon his return to writing, however, he was like a newfound man. With no other way to communicate than through writing, he seemed to have found his true voice was always his writing. He embraced social media with a verve and became a pioneer in a new way. Just as he redefined film criticism with his personal style, and pioneered televised film discussion with his syndicated TV show, he now defined a new way for celebrities and media figures to connect with their audience. He was ever present in the virtual world, and many who had only dipped their feet into the social media pool, now jumped in the same way Ebert had.

I had never even read a film review before I entered college. Now surrounded by a department of cineastes as a Drama major, I was suddenly more aware of the cinematic world than I ever was. Ever present in any conversation about film was Ebert. Ebert was held in higher esteem than any other drama critic because he wasn’t just a critic. He’d actually been in the trenches. He had written and made movies as well as critiquing them. His screenplay for Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” placed him as a cult icon as well as a mainstream one. He knew what it really took to get your own artistic vision on the screen.

So I read my first Roger Ebert review. It was one recommended to me by a friend. It was his review for the 1981 werewolf movie “The Howling”. In it, he didn’t talk about the acting or the direction or the score or the script. He described a story of an old timey style news team made up of Uncle Roger and Little Jimmy. They were investigating a case and kept being interrupted by all the ripping and tearing and growling sounds as werewolves were attacking them. I’m pretty sure it was a thumbs down review, but that didn’t matter because it was more fun than the movie itself. I was hooked. Ebert didn’t write a whole lot of reviews like that, but I got it. I understood that he understood what all this watching movies business was about.

My own personal relationship with Roger didn’t begin until 2002 when my wonderful wife surprised me with a birthday gift of tickets to Roger Ebert’s 4th Annual Overlooked Film Festival in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. I suppose calling it a personal relationship would probably have come as a surprise to Roger. While he was never one to turn away a film fan, I wasn’t exactly on his party guest list. But, I was writing my own reviews by then, and I’d found a way to spend a little time with him (and about 2000 other people) for a few days each year doing what we each love to do most—watch movies.

I met Roger for the first time in the University of Illinois bookstore at the book signing he held every year on the Friday morning of the festival. Only certain books were allowed for the signing in order to keep things moving. I believe there was a limit of two books or something like that. It seemed few abided by these rules, least of all Ebert himself. He seemed blissfully unaware that he was only supposed to be signing a certain number of a certain selection of his books. I brought three more books than were eligible In case I could get away with it. The funny thing is, I was never much of a signature collector. I’d met famous people before and didn’t even think of getting their autograph and didn’t regret not having them. This was just a little more personal to me.

So I plopped my stack of five books in front of this man I’d watched on TV for twenty years. He started up some small talk. He asked me where I was from. He was impressed I’d come all the way from Missouri. He drew little thumbs up on each signature, each a slightly different greeting than the last. I told him I’d been writing some reviews. He congratulated me on the effort.

I’d recently seen The Today Show’s Gene Shalit review the first “Harry Potter” trailer. It irked me that a legitimate film critic would debase himself by critiquing a trailer, so I tried working it into the conversation. I think I said something about maybe getting his job on the Today Show. Ebert seemed not to notice the slur on Shalit and mentioned his respect for the man and pointed out the Shalit was also an Illini alum. I mentally slapped myself in the forehead. Didn’t know that!

Despite my backfired attempt to distinguish myself in Ebert’s eyes, he continued his conversation cordially and when I requested that he sign the dust jacket of the hardcover I brought of his brand new first “Great Movies” collection, he sent his helper away to find a Sharpie so the embossment would hold the ink.

That was all the contact I’d had with my hero during the first Overlooked Film Festival, which would eventually change its name to Roger Ebert’s Film Festival and was more commonly known as Ebertfest. I returned to the festival five more times, until the financial burdens of having my own family prevented me from attending any more. On subsequent festivals I was determined to force myself into more contact with the people running the festival and its special guests. At my second festival I had a conversation with Ebert’s lovely wife Chaz about the actor Dennis Haysbert. I also asked the most forward question of the evening during the Q&A with director Paul Cox about his autumn romance movie “Innocence”. On another festival I forced Richard Roeper to take a picture with me. He was not as welcoming about it as Roger had been about the books. I also had a wonderful conversation with film critic Michael Phillips about the beautiful Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois and the importance of sitting in the right place in the theater. I also held a brief conversation with writer director David Gordon Green about the films of Terrence Malick, a conversation he was probably getting sick of after his first film was compared to Malick by everybody.

I, however, never got a chance to sit down with Roger and talk with him again. The closest I ever got to another discourse with the man who had shaped my obsession with film was in 2008 after the release of the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace”. It was one of those not-so-rare occasions when I greatly differed with Ebert in my opinion of a movie. He slammed the film for focusing on the action rather than the savoir-faire of Bond himself. For my critique of the film, I decided to write a retort to Ebert’s review. This was just the angle I was taking. I never really intended for Ebert to see it when I was writing it; but when I was done, I thought to myself, “Why not?” I had addressed the review to him as if it were a letter. Since I did that, I figured I should at least send it to him. So, I did. To my surprise, he responded. He did not challenge my views or concede to them, but what he did write back was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. He wrote:

"Re: Quantifying 'Quantum'

Well, you make good points. Although I've seen every Bond movie, I admit I am not a scholar of them. Anyway, congratulations on your blog, and on your writing. You have a clear and persuasive voice.

RE "

I attended the 10th Annual Eberfest in 2008, when Roger’s medical complications kept him away from Ebertfest for the first time. It was one of the more magical Ebertfests. Roger was missed, but the spirit he created for the event and the sheer respect for film and what it holds as an art form and entertainment medium radiated from every member of the audience at every screening of that festival. It was clear that even once Roger was no longer with us, the contributions he made to movies would thrive.

Like Mr. Moore, I never got my sit down with my Roger. He will be missed by many more than those who were close to him, and by many more than those who were heavily influenced by him as I was. Roger Ebert was 70. Roger Ebert was a cineaste. He popularized the phrase “Two Thumbs Up!” He loved movies. That may be all he ever wanted anyone to remember about him. 

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