On Tuesday, the Arts Club of Chicago remembered Roger, who was a long-time member of the club, with a panel discussion of his life, his work and his legacy. The panel, moderated by author and WFMT classical music critic and commentator Andrew Patner, included: Chaz Ebert; Barbara Scharres, the Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Milos Stehlik, Director of Facets Multi-Media; Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune.
The panelists remembered Roger as a man who was able to blend profound intellectual curiosity with a welcoming, populist style. Michael Phillips recalled working in a factory during college and hearing they guys who worked there say "Yeah, I went and saw this subtitled movie over the weekend." "Why'd you see that?" "Roger and Gene reviewed it." As Phillips eloquently put it, Roger "stoked your curiosity in a way that made it seem like a great adventure to give it a try." Stehlik called Roger "a great connector," both in the way he led audiences to films they might not otherwise have tried, but also in the way he put together people, making introductions.
Scharres stressed the importance of Roger's online journal in helping people beyond Chicago understand Roger as a person with incredible intellectual range, and not just a movie critic. She recalled how impressed she was when Roger began writing about his cancer and the loss of his voice.
The panelists all celebrated Roger the storyteller, the charmer, the host. Patner recalled the way Roger would reply to emails incredibly quickly, making you feel special to be 'at the front of the line,' until you would talk to other people and learn that Roger was that way with so many people. He loved to engage people, and those quick replies to email were his usual way.
As Phillips recalled, Roger was a great colleague. The first year Phillips went to the Cannes Film Festival, Roger basically took Phillips under his wing and showed him how to navigate the festival. Chaz pointed out that this was always a crucial fact about Roger: He was certainly competitive, but he didn't use his fame as an advantage. "He didn't use Michael's inexperience at Cannes to get a leg up, but instead wanted Michael to do the best that Michael could do." Patner pointed out that Roger often made references to the work of Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Chicago Reader critic, in his writing. Though the two men had different temperaments and approaches to film, they shared a fundamental enthusiasm for ideas, and a desire to share those ideas with people.
Throughout the conversation, Roger's intellectual curiosity and a desire to share ideas came into the discussion explicitly or implicitly. People often described Roger as a critic with 'heart.' As Phillips put it, "For so many people, 'heart' is a code word for anti-intellectualism, but in Roger's case it wasn't. Roger had the appetite for everything that was out there."