Far from the Madding Crowd
Whether his film is lush or rolling in the muck, it always has a tactile quality that makes it accessible, which is also true of…
Longtime readers of the Chicago Sun-Times are familiar with Roger Ebert's "One-Minute Reviews." These are capsule reviews (roughly 75-150 words or so), condensing his responses to current movies. As any writer knows, the short versions can be harder to write than the full-length ones.
In that spirit, we asked Roger's beloved Far-Flung Correspondents and Demanders to contribute their own single-paragraph "minireviews" (as he usually referred to them) about the man himself. The challenge: To write "a 'capsule' about Roger — or, perhaps, TO Roger — capturing the essence of what his writing, and his presence in your life, meant to you." Sure, some of us went slightly over, but so did Roger sometimes. To him, no rule was inflexible. The important thing was to communicate -- in your own voice.
This is from us to Roger:
Dear Roger: Someone on Twitter just posted a photo they took at the Smithsonian of old Jack Warner's address book. Cecil B DeMille lived on 2000 DeMille Road, Hollywood! Only a week ago, I would have sent the photo to you, and I bet you would have made a crack about it. "I wonder if De Havilland is still on the same number," or some such witty retort. I miss that. And I miss you, dear friend. You lived thousands of miles away from me, but you were always there. Not just through your writing, but as a presence, as a force of nature. Towering over me, urging me to be better, instructing me to strive for goodness, encouraging me to be happy. You were one of a kind, and I love you. — Ali Arikan, Istanbul, Turkey
Oh, Roger. I knew you long before I knew you. As a teen in central Illinois, your film reviews became daily reading, and you my first “professor,” as my sense of movies, from just seeing whatever was showing, with greasy popcorn, some laughs or tears, evolved. CU/Boulder’s superb International Film Series cracked me open to the art of film. And I saw you around then — several times — at the World Affairs Conferences, the Telluride Film Festivals, but was much too shy to say hello. Only years later, just at Christmas 2010, we made contact thru our good friend Howie Movshovitz, when a question I had about a book I was writing exploded with your invitation into this world of Far-Flung Correspondents. My writing, indeed my life, have never been the same. Thank you doesn’t really capture it. Wherever your spirit has gone, I hope our messages and love and FFC pieces somehow reach you, as we’ll still be writing them for you. -- Anath White, Far-Flung Correspondent, Los Angeles
"At the Movies" transformed Roger from local treasure and Chicago institution into a national icon. I first became aware of this in 1980. I worked in sales for a non-theatrical 16mm film distributor. On one particular sales call, I tried to convince a rural Texas community college student programmer to add "Oh Heavenly Dog" to his film schedule. Despite the star power of Benji and Chevy Chase, my pitch was doomed. For the first time, I heard the objection: "Ebert and Siskel didn't like it." Years later, in an email, I shared that story with Roger. He instantly emailed back: "Was I right?" –Donald Liebenson, Chicago
Roger Ebert is an impossible man to describe. He was large. He contained multitudes. He loved his work. He loved his family. He cared deeply for friends and strangers. He was a fan of cinema and life, and he lived both with strength and grace. He was a great film critic, but above all a great human being. The kindest, wittiest, most honest and fearless and generous person I know. An infallible figure. I honestly thought in my naiveté that he would outlive me. He was a beacon of light for so many people. I can't believe he is gone. — Grace Wang, Toronto, Canada
Dear Roger: For someone who professed he learned various dances, all of them badly, you were still able to inspire dancers to see movies. Reviewing the 1997 movie "The Tango Lesson," you wrote: "The score, partly composed by [Sally] Potter, is so seductive that for the first time in years I walked out of the screening and down the street and bought the soundtrack." At the time, I rarely went to see movies, yet that line lured me to the cinema. I bought the soundtrack and embraced Argentine tango. Later, you changed my life again, by urging me to live and breathe dance, but also write ("Start with the juice, then add the pulp.") and jump into Hulu and have a Japanese film "orgy." Glad I got to dance for you. Sorry I never danced with you. Now I must return to my movie orgy. — Jana Monji, Pasadena
Roger sent me many supportive e-mails over the years, but in January 2012 he sent an unfriendly reply that cut to the bone: I’d asked a legitimate question about formatting the "Demanders" columns, and Roger testily chided me for wasting his time. I felt like Obama had accused me of terrorism. Within hours Roger sent a sincere, unsolicited apology; he had lumped me in with torrents of “reply all” threads that had become overwhelming. "Your email was conscientious and thoughtful," he wrote, "and I'm sorry for the tone of my reply, which was carelessly dashed off." Almost everything I loved about Roger is encapsulated in those words. He knew he’d unintentionally inflicted a wound, and rushed to heal it. – Jeff Shannon, Seattle
The more I knew Roger, the more I realized how much I didn't know. And I appreciated that; nobody could ever have known all sides of Charles Foster Kane, either. A man with huge appetites for life and art, Roger meticulously cultivated his public image, especially in the last few years when he devoted himself to shaping perceptions that he knew would outlive him. But he wasn't bucking for sainthood. The same demons that drive someone to alcoholism inevitably persist throughout a lifetime of recovery. He made a lot of well-documented mistakes — in print and in life, in public and in private — out of enthusiasm, ego, imprudence, impatience, fierce competitiveness and that famous temper ("Your deadlines mean NOTHING to me!"). But he didn't dwell on failures or transgressions, his own or others', and in that crucial sense he led by example. To err is human. Admit the mistake, put it right if you can, then move on. That's hard. And it might be the most valuable thing I learned from him — not least about myself. — Jim Emerson, Seattle
L to R: Jana Monji, Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson, Donald Liebenson.
Growing up in Australia, I never got to watch his iconic television show every week, and there was no internet or social media then to instantaneously spread his eloquent words, thoughts, opinions and insightful film reviews, but I was in awe of Roger Ebert. As a film writer and reporter, no matter where you were from in the world, he was the gold standard. When I moved to Los Angeles, it was literally beyond my wildest dreams to have the opportunity to sit in his chair as a guest film critic on "At the Movies." I remember how much Roger welcomed the “Aussie” critic to his show, and our warm email exchanges on the Australian films he reviewed and loved. His generosity and support of international cinema and film critics from all around the world was so important and vital to all of us, and I feel forever blessed that I was and remain in his considerable orbit. — Katherine Tulich, Los Angeles
"I'll see you at the movies." These last words that Roger wrote on his blog are not a valediction, but a benediction, and a prophecy. For I imagine that I'll see Roger at the movies just as I've been seeing him all my movie-watching life. He made movies so personable that whether reading his words or watching him on TV, you felt that he was there just talking with you in an ongoing, perpetually enriching conversation that reached beyond a flat movie screen towards the endless dimensions of life itself. Unpretentious intelligence, fearless curiosity, and an eagerness to connect with others. These qualities are what he brought to the moviegoing experience for so many people. In those ways we'll continue to bring him to the movies with us. — Kevin B. Lee, Chicago
Dear Roger, I used to think I had a lot to learn from you about cinema and simple, effective writing, but I learned, over the years that I interacted with you, that you had more to teach about goodness, people and life itself. You gave us foreign correspondents undeserved opportunities in more ways than anyone can ever know, simply out of your unending kindness and generosity, and we’re so thankful for that. You were a mentor, a teacher, a friend, a pen pal and a second father to me, and I will miss you profoundly. You were just the best. — Krishna Bala Shenoi, Bangalore, India
I grew up watching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's show, which gave a movie-crazed Dallas kid a sense that there was a world of cinema far beyond the boundaries of my city, my country, my continent. It was only later, in college, that I discovered Roger's writing via anthologies sold in the campus bookstore. I didn't think of him as my teacher, but that's what he was. I was awed by his ability to discuss a film's values and emotions in terms that everyone could understand and relate to. That last skill was what made him not just respected, but popular, even beloved. Even critics who understand the value of connecting emotionally with readers don't have Roger's ability to do so. He was a humanist. Empathy flowed from his words.
— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York
He was generous but fair. Gregarious but private. He was professional and poetic, yet could be witty and wicked. He was disciplined and passionate. Effusive in praise yet kind in scorn. He would always listen but did not suffer fools. He was a gatherer of talent and a uniter amongst companions. And if he let you into his circle, he would be its warm sun. He was my mentor, my hero, my inspiration and my friend. A reaffirmation of humanity's worth. He was a goddamn miracle. — Michael Mirasol, Perth, Australia
The most remarkable thing about Roger’s writing was that it remained completely free of resentment. How do you review 10,000-plus movies (many of them duds) and not become jaded, glib, or simply bored out of your mind in the process? How do you approach every new release for 46 years as another possibility for enchantment, thrill or revelation …? The miracle of Roger, who plied the trade in which folks often thrive on heartlessness, was that he somehow kept his capability for wonderment intact. That’s why his prose – among so many other things it does – feels so refreshing, nurturing and healing. — Michał Oleszczyk, Krakow, Poland
Roger was a wonderful man, a mentor who taught us to trust our own voices as writers, to communicate with our readers rather than speak down to them, to bring our own life experiences into our reviews and to be OK with having an unpopular opinion. I watched Roger’s show with Gene Siskel from the time I was six years old. I read him every week. He was my idol, so it was a dream come true for me to be taken under his wing. His praise of my writing was worth more than gold. His joy at sharing his gifts with the world shall remain unmatched, and he will be dearly missed by all of us. — Odie Henderson, Clifton, NJ
L to R: Olivia Collette, Odie Henderson, Omer Mozaffar, Pablo Villaça, Jana Monji, Michał Oleszczyk.
When a celebrity dies, people tend to use broad strokes to paint an impression of a carefully nurtured image. When Roger passed away, people had personal stories to share. He was fascinated with people and their ideas, and gave both of them a chance. He took the time to get to know what made you special, always encouraging you to stay that way. Roger introduced me to some of the best writers I know; it humbles me beyond measure that he felt I deserved to be among them. Everything – the community, the conversation – revolved around writing. It’s the bit about him that I’ll miss the most. — Olivia Collette, Montreal, Canada
Roger respected the intelligence of his vast audience. He never took you for granted. He was sensitive. Roger truly saw people. His reviews reflected that. Roger had a worldview, a global perspective of people and of cinema. Roger invited me into his home. He invited all of us into his home, his world and his life as much as we invited him into our homes and our moviegoing lives on a weekly basis. In that way Roger belonged to the world. — Omar Moore, San Francisco
I'm just a kid from the far South Suburbs of Chicago, still trying to understand how I became a tiny spec in Roger's giant universe. I am so grateful for his generosity, his demand for excellence, his fierce intellectual engagement and his deep, humane heart. He makes a grain of sand feel as large and glorious as a galaxy. May peace be with him. — Omer M. Mozaffar, Chicago
Known as a mentor, an inspiration and a friend by a multitude of people all around the world, Roger turned his 70 years in this planet into a statement about our capacity for love and empathy for our fellow human beings. He wrote with his heart, but with the mastery of an incredibly intelligent and gifted man. His reviews used each movie as a starting point for something much bigger: Cinema and, as the title of his touching biography would tell, Life itself. He hated using little stars or grades to describe a movie, but he himself was a 4-stars man, a Two Thumbs-Up person, a masterpiece with no equal. — Pablo Villaça, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Most of the film criticism I have ever written was an effort either to imitate or impress Roger Ebert. But the best lessons he taught me were not about film but about overcoming physical disability. My disability means I’ve never been able to leave my childhood home or take a proper post as a film critic. Consequently, I often feel I’m not where I’m supposed to be in life. But at Ebertfest I knew that for once I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Because of Roger, I travelled to another continent, to a place I had never been, and felt completely at home. And while I was there I realized that Roger’s greatest achievement was his relationship with Chaz. I saw, from watching them together and reading his pieces about their marriage, that it is possible for any physical limitation to be rendered insignificant by love. To quote Roger, “I didn’t always know this, and I am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” — Scott Jordan Harris, London
Roger Ebert and his writings came to me by coincidence when I was young and naive, but his influence on me and my life has been immense to say the least. Many of his clear, eloquent reviews taught me a lot about how I should think about movies as well as how I should write about them, and I was very fortunate to tell and show him in person how much I owed to him as a movie fan and an amateur critic. It was really a privilege to know him as a mentor and a friend, and my only regret is that I did not reach to him as much as he did to me. He taught me I can always find and reach to people to talk with if I try, and I will never forget that lesson along with the honesty, generosity, and diligence shown through his exceptional professional and private life. — Seongyong Cho, Seoul, South Korea
There's too much to tell. When Jim Henson died, I was crushed. The plan had been to eventually meet him and thank him for sparking my imagination through his TV shows and movies. That's all we really want from our heroes, a chance to thank them for all the gifts. The only TV creator whose work I had logged as much time with as Henson was Roger Ebert (sorry, Gene Roddenberry. Close, but —). For decades I would watch Roger argue with Gene (Siskel, of course), then rush to the theater to see who was right. The only writer whose work I've read more of than Mark Twain is Roger. He taught me how to break big ideas down into simple, crystalline sentences, and I got to thank him for it 25 years later. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, abbreviated by death, but with none of the meaning lost. Provided that I make the cut, we'll continue our convo in heaven, or the cosmos, or wherever beautiful lights like Roger go. — Steven BooneWhen it comes to mass communication, be it an article or a film review, the flow of information has always been from the West to the Middle East or Far East and so on. It was always a one-way flow of info. The Internet is the first type of mass communication that supports a two-way flow in a borderless world. Still, if you think of the internet as this global media empire, you’ll find that it’s dominated by certain core nations (US, UK, etc.) and these core nations impose their culture on developing nations, so what Roger essentially did with this new "foreign correspondents" feature is more or less genius, because now we (as Far-Flung Correspondents) were no longer at the receiver’s end of the flow of information. This supports the idea of a global balance of information flow. I think Roger’s film website is the first of its kind, for it’s the first website to offer a global perspective on films. In other words, Roger Ebert single-handedly decentralized online film criticism. — Wael Khairy, Cairo, Egypt
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