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Happy Birthday, Roger: A Celebration of Our Favorite Writing

To celebrate Roger Ebert's birthday, we're turning the site back over to him, with the input of our current staff of writers and Publisher Chaz Ebert. Over the years, we've asked contributors to pick a "My Favorite Roger," choosing one of Ebert's reviews to highlight. You'll find nine of those choices on the homepage today, along with the associated "My Favorite Roger" pieces that explain why the writers chose those reviews in our blog section. You'll find some that have run before, along with new ones by Brian Tallerico, Nell Minow, and Allison Shoemaker. Chaz herself has picked out four reviews as well that you'll find republished today: "You've Been Trumped," "I Will Follow," "Northfork," and "A Woman Under the Influence." Chaz also chose three still-timely blog posts republished today - "Thoughts on Bill O' Reilly and Squeaky The Chicago Mouse," "The One-Percenters," and "This Land Was Made for You and Me" - and we republished the first two essays chosen by our staff below. 

We also asked our staff to pick out non-review writing that they loved to serve as the icing on today's content birthday cake. Here are their choices:

"Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
-Picked by Scout Tafoya

Unlike Roger, I do fear what is coming. Robin Wood once wrote that what staved off his fear of death was remembering the way Howard Hawks heroes, specifically those in "Rio Bravo," faces their impending demise. For me it’s this passage from Roger’s writing, about having been content before he was born and how that’s to what he anticipates returning. It’s perspective I need but can only ever find when hearing him say it. The rest is just chaos. 

"Roger's Little Rule Book"
-Picked by Monica Castillo

Before I became a film critic, I was an avid reader of Roger's blog. I loved his reviews, of course, but I also loved his posts about personal matters, his family, and politics just as much. When I was invited to write about film for my college's online magazine, I was a biochemistry-turned-sociology major who had never thought of writing professionally before. I had no idea where to start, so I turned to Roger's blog and found his rule book post. It's a mix of practical writing advice ("Provide a sense of the experience.") and career tips ("Never review a film you have anything to do with."), some of which were what I was looking for and other things I didn't know I needed to learn. I wasn't in my college's journalism program, so even basic warnings like, "don't ask for photos with celebrities," and "beware of freebies," were news to me. Roger's post essentially served as my first preview into what working at a newspaper would be like, including the high expectations you should set for your work and behavior.  

"How I Am a Roman Catholic"
-Picked by Gerardo Valero

One of my favorite pieces Roger ever wrote was “How I am Roman Catholic,” one of the very last blogs he ever published. He explains just where his set of values came from, along with one of his main traits, empathy. As a fellow Catholic, I am also struck by how deep an impression religion had on Roger during his early years, even if our conclusions weren’t all necessarily the same. As everyone knows, one of his main traits concerned just how open he was about revealing very personal aspects of his life, and by the time he published this piece a few weeks before his passing, it felt to me like Roger had a special need to explain some of his most personal feelings just before he left. By the time I got to know Roger personally late in his life, I was struck by how very well I already knew him. 

"Gallo Goes on the Offensive After Bunny Flop"
-Picked by Allison Shoemaker

I remember the first time I read this: "I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than 'The Brown Bunny.'" 

I was a college kid, breathlessly following all the dispatches from Cannes, so I knew "The Brown Bunny" had been badly received, but I was not prepared for the magnificence of that barb. It is poetry, delicious and correct. When I wrote my very first negative review—of a Purdue production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child at a college theater festival—a year or so after reading that, it's the colonoscopy I had in mind. I won an award for that review. When it was announced, the Purdue kids booed me with vigor. I was unsettled and embarrassed, but even then, somewhat pleased, because I had this piece of writing in mind, and they, to use Roger's closing lines as a kind of metaphor, are still the director of "The Brown Bunny." 

"I've Always Wanted to Make a Picture in Ohio, Maybe I Have"
-Picked by Peter Sobczysnki

One legend sits in the back of a Mercury talking away, as the car taking him to a movie location gets so helplessly lost that it ends up crossing state lines, and another legend is on hand to chronicle the misadventure in all its glory. As an example of that most dubious subset of film journalism—the celebrity profile—this piece doesn't work at all, and there's not a chance in hell that anything remotely resembling it would ever get published today without any number of heads rolling as a result. And yet, if I were to pick one piece of writing that truly got the essence of that greatest of all movie stars—Robert Mitchum—I can't think of another that comes remotely as close to capturing what made him such an iconic star. For most journalists, this afternoon would have been considered a washout and a waste of time. Not Roger—he knew a good story when he saw it, and he transformed what might have been an awkward couple of hours into a piece so rich in character, humor and insight that it is practically feels like a one-act play. 

"A bouquet arrives ..." 
-Picked by Nick Allen 

There's an overwhelming amount of blogs written by Roger that cut deeper, or are bound to start endless discussions, when compared to this love note from May 7, 2007. But I want to highlight a piece that offers an ending that some may readers may not know to a true story. It concerns one of my favorite overall stories about Roger: first there was a book, full of Roger's bad reviews, titled Your Movie Sucks. Its title was a finger in the eye to Rob Schneider's movie "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," used in a thumbs-down review for that film. As in, "Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

But Roger was more invested in loving movies and their creators than antagonizing them. I'm sure that the same could be said for the creators, as with this case of the star of a movie that Roger called "aggressively bad." This is a lovely little story about all that, and it's crucial to the soul of this business. As Roger puts it, the story "was a reminder that in the great scheme of things, a review doesn’t mean very much."

"Nil by mouth"
-Picked by Michael Mirasol

I love all of Roger’s journals entries. But in the last year or so, one of his most memorable entries has frequently been on my mind. In “Nil by mouth,” he dives deep into losing his ability to eat, as a result of a series of failed surgeries to restore his jaw after his bout with thyroid cancer.

Curious enough, in my last year or so, I’ve had my own problems with eating. I’ve was diagnosed with duodenitis, which essentially has stapled my stomach, preventing me from eating many of the indulgences I’ve overindulged in. I’ve lost 17kg in the past year or so, which has been both a curse and a blessing.

My meal sizes have been significantly reduced and finding the right eating frequency has been a long struggle. Duodenitis causes reflux symptoms which mirror those of an early heart attack. Since my grandfather, dad and cousin all succumbed to the literal failings of their hearts, each episode I’ve had has always had me on edge. So much so that to this day I’ve lost nearly all trust in my instincts.

So, with every ambulance visit, every false alarm at the ER and every normal reading that doctors send me home with, finding certainty has been my pursuit of late. I can only imagine what Roger’s own quest for certainty must have been like, with much more at stake.

I identify greatly with his reflection involving his devout brother-in-law Johnny Hammel counselling him when Roger shares that vivid lifelong food memories have been rushing back to him.

“’Could be, when the Lord took away your drinking, he gave you back that memory.’

Whether my higher power was the Lord or Cormac McCarthy, those were the words I needed to hear.”

Though I can still partake of junk food that I used to have as the norm, because of the adjustments I’ve had to make, I no longer crave them the way I feared I would. I went through a phase mourning never having a burger, a soda or potato chips ever again. Vivid memories of sisig, lechon, lumpia and pancit danced in my head. But when I revisited these after losing 17kg in over a year, they no longer had their hold me. Even if their recollections did.

One of my fondest and most dear food reminiscence is of Roger’s Steak and Shake gatherings after a night at Ebertfest. I remember him writing this fabled place in “Car, Table, Counter, or Takhomasak.” But never in my most hopeful dreams did I imagine that I would one day join him there when I first met him. Roger was the greatest host, even if when he was voiceless, his presence and joy spoke the loudest. You could tell he hoped that their steakburgers would be as good for us as they were for him. It sure as hell was for me.

In those post-screening get-togethers we had, I often felt bad that he could not eat with us, but he dismissed our concerns. His joy at seeing his fellow cinematic souls together was unmistakable. That was all that mattered to him then. And it didn’t necessarily have to be at Steak and Shake. As long as film or food was the conduit between loved ones, he was in bliss.

He says it all in his concluding paragraph.

“So that's what's sad about not eating. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I'm alone, it doesn't involve dinner if it doesn't involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, "Remember that time?" I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it's sad. Maybe that's why I enjoy this blog. You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now.”

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