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Much More Than Movies: The Best of Roger’s Journal

Roger Ebert is often cited as one of the best film critics of all time, but he regularly expanded his writing to include much more than just movies, especially in his later years, when his journal became as essential as his weekly missives on the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Writing about deeply personal issues, including his fight with alcoholism and his political views, Roger was often as eloquent and moving as at any other point in his career. If you think about it, Roger always put himself out there. He became famous not by hiding behind a byline, but by humanizing the role of the film critic, not only on "Siskel & Ebert" but through his deeply personal writing and even his talk-show appearances. I grew up feeling like I knew and related to Roger Ebert in a way distinctly different from other film critics, and that relationship between critic and reader influenced his writing throughout his life. 

Over the weekend leading up the third anniversary of his passing, I read dozens of his most memorable journal entries, gaining a further appreciation of the scope and fearlessness with which he wrote, along with the dynamic he had with his readers. Roger would regularly write a post like “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” see the response (5,234 comments and counting), and then follow-up on how his readers reacted (in this case, in “Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn”). It’s no wonder that Roger was such an early adopter of social media. He was always a social critic, understanding that the reader is as essential to the process as the writer. Here are some of his greatest hits, in chronological order:

Ten Greatest Films of All Time

The “Roger’s Journal” section on this site naturally includes a lot of Roger’s top ten lists over the years, along with his more personal writing. While I tend to gravitate to the latter when I’m looking over Roger’s work, this piece stands out for a simple reason: It’s still incredibly highly trafficked, more so than any other on the channel last year. Why is that? It’s 25 years old. Sure, there’s a natural inclination to want to know what one of the greatest critics considered the best films of all time, but there’s also a definition of criticism in this piece that I think people find appealing. Roger writes, “If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it’s an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best.”

Start the Revolution without Digital

“I have seen the future of the cinema, and it is not digital,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. Of course, before he passed away, he knew the likelihood that these words wouldn’t be proven true, but this is one of those pieces that makes one wonder how Roger would have responded to recent developments in the “film vs. digital” debate. Would he have admired Quentin Tarantino for shooting “The Hateful Eight” in 70MM or Oscar winner László Nemes for championing the importance of shooting his “Son of Saul” in 35MM? And Roger’s questions still resonate: “Hollywood has not spent a dime, for example, to research the intriguing question, do film and digital create different brain states? Some theoreticians believe that film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis; wouldn't it be ironic if digital audiences found they were missing an ineffable part of the moviegoing experience?”

Evil in Film: To What End?

I was always fascinated when Roger directly addressed controversy caused by his film reviews and even responded to filmmakers. When Roger reviewed “Chaos” in 2005, he wrote, “'Chaos' is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel—a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it.” The filmmakers took note, and some offense, writing Roger a provocative letter that argued, “Real evil exists and cannot be ignored, sanitized or exploited.” Roger’s response in this post is a wonderful example of how he viewed the relationship between cinema and morality, an often-tricky minefield for writers, especially young ones who argue that a film can’t be offensive. He wrote, “It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it? Your attitude is as detached as your hero's. If 'Chaos' has a message, it is that evil reigns and will triumph. I don't believe so.” Roger’s overwhelming belief in the goodness of people, and in cinema’s ability to capture that, informed so much of his work, especially from this piece to the end of his life.

Critic is a Four-Letter Word

Roger continues to define his role in the conversation about art with this excellent piece, especially essential in light of the recent “Batman vs. Superman” debate, one in which the exact purpose of the critic has been questioned yet again. How many times have we heard that the role of a critic is “to criticize”? It’s an easy, offhand way to write off a negative review you don't agree with by essentially dismissing a whole profession. Roger writes, “I would suggest that the average piece of junk is not meaningful at all, apart from the way it conditions the minds of its beholders to accept more pieces of junk. How important is criticism of it? Powerless, usually. Why do critics bother with it? I will appoint myself spokesman. We had to endure it and want our revenge. We enjoy writing scathing and witty prose. We know we are rarely writing for those who seek out junk. Perhaps we hope we entertain, and encourage the resolve of those who avoid it.”

My Name is Roger, and I’m an Alcoholic

More than most of his journal entries, this piece feels deeply personal, like something Roger had been working through in his brain for years and simply had to express. It opens with a memory: “In August 1979, I took my last drink.” The piece is too eloquent and detailed to quote here, but if you do click over to it, and you should, look at the comments. Look at the people moved by Roger’s personal admissions and struggle. “I’m struggling and you helped”; “Thank you Roger. You were a good reviewer, but you were a better man.”; “I think it might be time to try to get on that wagon again.”; “I went to my first meeting yesterday. I remembered this entry from when it was first published and re-read it. I think it had much to do with my attending my first meeting and I thank you.” Looking at the comments, it’s not hard to believe that this piece pushed someone to get sober. Roger never talked down to people or lectured. He knew just sharing his story as deeply and personally as possible would have greater power.

Who Do You Read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

I don’t believe Roger ever could have known what this piece would become, which is something of a meeting place for regular commenters. The piece gets comments almost every single day, even now in 2016, when it’s crossed 4,600 such comments and is still going strong. I’m not even sure why. It’s an interesting entry, but I think it’s almost one of those random happenstances of the internet in which people took a subject and ran with it on their own. It’s indicative of Roger’s relationship with his readers, turning a site that bears his name into a community.

Remembering Gene

Ten years after the passing of Gene Siskel, Roger wrote one of his most moving elegies, revealing the depth of the relationship that often looked contentious to the public but was essential to his life. As he relays Buddy Rogers telling him, “You guys have a sibling rivalry, but you both think you’re the older brother.” This is such a beautiful piece, as Roger eloquently remembers the life of his colleague and friend. Roger really conveys the details of their history in ways he hadn’t done before, telling anecdotes and even including clips. It’s not an overtly emotional piece, but the emotion is there, under every paragraph, like an old friend telling stories of someone they’ve lost. You can almost see Roger smiling as he writes it, the memories coming back to him as he conveys them.

Video Games Can Never Be Art

I so wish I could debate this piece with Roger, but there are enough commenters willing to do that, as this is another one of those articles that looks like it will be inspiring responses long after we’re all gone. Roger writes, “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [Video game producer] Kellee Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” This is a great piece that became a conversation, with comments refuting Roger’s points and Roger responding to them. He was always open to disagreement, something all writers could stand to embrace a little more. In fact, Roger seemed to thrive on it sometimes, deepening his arguments while never feeling like he was belittling writers who disagreed.

All the Lonely People

Perhaps it was because of some of the responses to the articles above that Roger wrote this, a deeply moving commentary on loneliness. In return, so many commenters responded to this examination of the human need for connection. And consider for a minute how this worldview impacted the way that Roger viewed film. He was a man who was popular and afflicted enough to become a narcissist; to refuse to see the world outside of his own. And he never came close to doing that. If anything, in his later years, he seemed more fascinated with other people, other cultures, other viewpoints. He writes, “One woman who posted wonderful comments later revealed she was almost completely paralyzed. I think of her often, and think of her as reading. Others have disabling diseases. You already know how I'm screwed up. So, you get on with it, and you do what you can. The internet is a godsend.” We often see the vitriol on social media as indicative of the anger that the internet can engender but Roger saw the powerful connectivity it offered as well.

Women Are Better Than Men

Especially in light of the responses to his video games piece, I picture Roger writing that headline with a glimmer in his eye, knowing what would happen. And he wastes no time, opening with “Women are nicer than men.” Some of the angry commenters never got past those first five words. This entry is particularly interesting in light of the recent discussion about women in film criticism. What would Roger have to say about Meryl Streep’s comments about female film critics? How would he have felt about Women Writers Week? It’s easy to lament not knowing how Roger would respond to a specific film (“Would he have liked 'The Revenant'?” was a common question last year) but I more often find myself missing how Roger would have addressed an entire issue. The blog entries he would have written about #OscarsSoWhite. The commentaries about Donald Trump. The way he would have addressed the rise of companies like Netflix and Amazon into the world of theatrical distribution. There are many carrying on his mantle in those arenas, but this is one of those pieces that makes me miss “Roger the Writer” as much as “Roger the Critic.”

Roger Loves Chaz

May we all know such love as Roger and Chaz Ebert. This chapter from “Life Itself,” which Roger printed on the 20th anniversary of his marriage in 2012, is one of the most beautiful, loving things that he ever wrote. It’s like a great love song in its ability to turn a phrase into an emotional truth, and it is so unapologetically heartfelt. Writers often fear opening themselves up to the public, fear letting their emotions show in their work. Roger writes, “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.” And he’s just getting started. His willingness to share this love with his readership and the world is what’s so inspirational. It teaches us what love can and should be. Near the end, he writes, “She continues to make my life possible, and her presence fills me with love and a deep security. That’s what a marriage is for. Now I know.” May we all know such love.

The Body Count

Three days after writing “Roger Loves Chaz,” Roger published the most strident of his several pieces about gun control. Perhaps directly addressing the love of his life and the woman who saved him allowed him to see a new side of how guns can tear apart families and destroy love. It seems likely that Roger would still be writing about gun control, especially in light of the near-daily school shootings we’ve had in 2016 and the once-unimaginable murder rate in Chicago. If anything, this piece reminds me how long this problem has been going on. Four years ago, Roger was calling for stricter gun control. He’d still be calling. Or maybe not. Even in 2012, he writes, “You know what? The hell with it. I’m tired of repeating the obvious. I know with a dread certainty that I will change nobody’s mind.” Somehow, I think he’d still be trying.

What Was My Aunt Martha Trying to Ask Me?

Less than six weeks before his passing, Roger wrote this eloquent true story about the death of his Aunt Martha. It’s impossible to read it now, especially around the anniversary of his death, and not relate it to Roger himself when he writes things like, “There are always questions you wish you’d asked after it’s too late to get an answer. Sometimes years can pass before you realize they’re questions.” He goes on to tell a detailed history of his family in ways that we don’t often get from writers, especially film critics, offering further context for his worldview, upbringing, and deep humanism.

A Leave of Presence

A piece that always makes me cry. It’s Roger’s last, of course, and so it’s bittersweet that a lot of what Roger writes in it didn’t come to pass. However, I also think it’s a fitting finale, a man talking about his condition, life and love. He opens with the words “Thank you,” always respectful of his readers in ways that very few are. And he closes with similar words of gratitude that feel like a goodbye, like maybe he had some idea it would be his last piece: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.” No, Roger, thank you for taking us.

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