Famed film-critic Roger Ebert has died today just two days after telling the world that the cancer he’d been fighting for years had returned. There are many people in our lives who make an impact on us in various ways. Sometimes they’re obvious like the love of your parents or the help of a close friend or even a smile you might get each day from the girl who hands you that morning coffee at Starbucks. Roger Ebert affected my life both directly and indirectly.
I read his posting just this morning, before hearing of his death, and I immediately took it as a final goodbye. It seemed absolutely clear to me that all his talk about slowing down and being able to do things was cover for his opening statements of laser-like finality: “Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.“
Reading those words brought back some very fond memories. As I began to recall them, quite incredibly, the news feed updated alerting me to his death.
I remember first seeing Roger and his long-time writing adversary and partner — Gene Siskel — on a low-budget show about movies that aired on the local PBS station. It captivated me. The two clearly seemed to despise one another (he of the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel from the cross-town competition, the Chicago Tribune) and yet they had a mutual repartee that transcended their animosity. My favorite moments were some of the most commonly known. Ebert always took issue with being second on the bill. His name came first alphabetically and he had a far more polished resume (he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer) and he never let Siskel forget it. It was riveting television even then. Over the many years the show improved, and even greater fame followed for both. Along the way I learned to love movies in ways I hadn’t before. Their comments became essential to my viewing. If they both hated a movie I learned it was best to skip it. Two thumbs-up and I’d be sure to go see it. I also started to understand films better through their virtual guidance.
Then, one fateful day somewhere around 1990 my phone rang at my office. I picked it up and on the other end a voice boomed out introducing himself as Roger Ebert. I was sure it was a joke but decided I’d play along for the time being. Within a few moments I realized it wasn’t a joke. Roger said he and Gene were working on a new primetime show for the holidays. Okay great, I thought to myself, but did he and Gene plan to call every fan with the news? He went on to explain that as odd as it sounded they’d decided to add a closing segment where they’d recommend a Christmas gift and that the gift would be something out of the tech sector. Then he said he’d asked around and someone suggested someone else who suggested they call me to get a recommendation for the show. I guess that made sense. At the time I owned a technology-based testing company that saw products well ahead of their release. I, of course, could say little more than, “I’d be glad to help.” We spent another 15 or 20 minutes on the phone talking about the latest gadgets and what he liked and didn’t. He then asked me to think about it and gave me his direct e-mail address. I had a direct line to Roger Ebert. Wow.
We’d bounce products off each other and, finally, we agreed on a few items for the pair to recommend on the show. I assumed that’d be it, but it wasn’t. Roger continued to ask me for my opinion of many new technologies that popped up and this continued on for a few short years. The holiday show lasted three. When the second one rolled around Roger called me again, extremely excited. He’d found the perfect product to recommend to the world. Out of nowhere he’d learned to play the piano — from scratch — and it was all due to a product called The Miracle Piano Teaching System. It was made by a company I worked with called Software Toolworks. He gushed like a child who just experienced ice cream for the first time — dipped in chocolate — with sprinkles. He marvelled at how technology could suddenly open a door so clearly closed to most people for so long and with such incredible ease.
This was a product I was intimately familiar with. We’d been contracted to do a good bit of its quality assurance testing and I, like Roger, was enamored with the potential to learn this seemingly unapproachable instrument as an adult. I had one simple question for Roger: “What lesson are you on right now?” I asked because I knew all too well that the first roughly 20 lessons had the student playing only with their left hand and that I too believed this box contained some sort of black magic until it came time to add my right hand to the mix. That’s when it all came undone and my progress halted like a snowball hitting a brick wall. Roger said he was up to about lesson 12 but that it was all going so amazingly smoothly that he just knew the rest would be more of the same. He’d be playing Christmas staples for the whole family in a matter of weeks. I told him of my cautionary tale but he wouldn’t be deterred. He said he was going to recommend this on the show as the most compelling gift of the year. I begged him not to. He filmed the show and recommended it to all America. A bit after New Years my phone rang again and it was Roger. He finally reached the lesson that brought in the right hand and was stunned to find the magic vanish like fog on a quickly warming morning. No matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t progress further. He was devastated. I reminded him that he’d just told all of America that they too would be playing Chopin by Easter. He said something like, “Do you think they’ll remember?” We both gave up piano then and there. If he ever returned to it I can’t be sure but I’d be surprised if he did.
I reached out to him once on a pressing movie issue. He’d just had a show where he and Gene went over their best films of all-time. The problem was that out of the movies listed, I, and many of my peers, found them boring, dull or lacking. It always bothered me that the classic list of top movies — Casablanca, Citizen Kane and many others — just didn’t appeal to me. Much to my surprise Roger’s interest was piqued. He told me he’d been giving this some thought recently as the same refrain was growing at events he’d hold or attend — and he had a theory. He decided I’d be the sacrificial first lamb. He sent me a list of 10 different classic movies that I’d not seen and that, frankly, I had no intention of ever seeing for fear that they’d be even more dull than the famed list. He asked me to watch each of them and then report back only after seeing them all. I dutifully watched the lot and, with each viewing, my utter disbelief grew. I loved every single one of them. I called him up and conveyed the results. He wasn’t the least bit surprised as he poked around for every tidbit I could offer up. He pointed out that the audience was changing and that the younger generations demanded a plot that moved at a faster pace. Films like Casablanca are very much like reading Tolkien. The tiniest detail gets described and fans love it but non-fans nearly fall into a coma waiting for the description of the sun to cease before the actual sun sets. Every one of the films on the new list had faster pacing (also known in the industry as a shorter average shot length) and it made all the difference. It changed my movie viewing experience forever and for the better. Not only could I enjoy a whole new treasure trove of classic films but that knowledge also made me appreciate the better known films more. Roger then took a good 20 minutes trying to once again explain why it takes at least eight viewings to fully absorb the beauty of Citizen Kane and, in the end, he was right (I could write a whole piece just on that experience).
Sadly the full list of 10 seems lost. I, of course, thinking these sorts of relationships last a lifetime, didn’t fully grasp the depth of the value of it all. I changed e-mail providers and software and somewhere along the way the message disappeared with the software. I hold out hope that it’s still around here somewhere. Several films jump right to mind: Notorious, Rebecca, Double Indemnity, Gaslight, The Caine Mutiny, The Philadelphia Story and 12 Angry Men. I keep telling myself the others will come back to me but with each passing year I realize it’s less likely than the year before. That interaction was the last time we spoke by phone. Over the next couple of years we continued to talk via e-mail. Each e-mail was followed by a longer span between the last until, finally, I sent an e-mail to him about some other topic and I realized he no longer remembered me — at least not until I brought up the piano — but that marked the end of the personal experience. In all honesty I have to say it hurt a little. Having a resource like that to call on was priceless. How couldn’t it hurt to face the inevitably obvious?
For Roger, his star continued its meteoric rise until, in 1999, we learned Gene had brain cancer and that it wasn’t good (as if brain cancer of any kind could be anything else). He withered away in a matter of months and one half of the creators of the iconic “thumbs-up” was gone. Roger never seemed to fully recover from that loss. The show certainly never recovered. Guest reviewers came and went and so too the viewers. Today it’s impossible for younger people to know just how much influence he and Siskel commanded. Then his own health declined, rebounded, declined and rebounded. Over the years my brother and I would read his editorials with regularity and marvel at the sheer beauty of his prose. No one could hammer home a point with more salience or (so it seemed) ease. He began to engage society more as time ticked by and his clear liberal personality came shining through damning him forever in the eyes of many conservatives. Their loss. I’m sure many wished the old guy would just retire and shut the hell up. Again, their loss.
Roger Ebert was an incredibly talented, incredibly normal, incredibly sharing person. I’m just glad to have been able to also be around during the same time and space that he was. The rest of my luck at having actually gotten to interact with him was just a great, highly valued, highly touching, never-to-be-forgotten bonus. Thank you Roger for showing me the light even if that light only came from the back of a darkened theater. It illuminated my world in ways you could have never guessed.