The Kid Who Would Be King
The Kid Who Would Be King is good where it counts most.
As we celebrate empathy this week on the fifth anniversary of Roger Ebert's passing, we'll be sharing some of your Roger stories submitted over the last week. In this installment, we've gathered memories from critics about their interactions with him, and how he influenced them as writers and film viewers. Over the next few days we'll be sharing other stories from fans of Roger's, along with tales of those who met Roger over the years.
My first job out of college was at a small-market radio station. I was a DJ, the webmaster, and, somehow, a movie critic.
I would always wait to read Roger's reviews until after writing mine. As far as I was concerned, Ebert was the only critic that mattered, if for no other reason than he and I agreed 98% of the time, and for the same reasons. He was a far better wordsmith than I am, though.
I gave it 3 1/2 stars, I think. Roger gave it considerably fewer.
I emailed him about this.
I don't remember verbatim what he said, and the letter is so much digital dust by now, but, the gist of it was "Stick to your guns. I was the only critic in America that liked 'Tomb Raider'."
In Roger Ebert's review of “La Dolce Vita,” he said “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.” It had never occurred to me before reading that review that revisiting a film could inspire a different reaction. Inspired, I went to the video center on campus and watched “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” again. This time, watching the film through the lens of my first failed great love. I first saw 'Eternal Sunshine' in theaters at 14, and while the film's ingenious premise was intriguing, I found it hard to relate to a person who would give a piece of themselves away voluntarily just to salve over the pain. Such logic was abundantly clear to a heart-broken 19-year-old. At 25, I watched that film again with my soon-to-be wife, and the conclusion I came to was just as different as it was at ages 14 and 20. Now, I grasped that Joel's (Jim Carrey) memories, while painful at the time, like mine, were informative to making me who I am today. Thanks to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and Roger's words, I understood that while memories may not change, the lessons we learn from them change constantly. Not just in the theater, but in every facet of life.
Back about 7 or 8 years ago, I wrote a story about Roger, and how he and I had both lost our voices (mine was temporary, his of course, was not) and sent it to him on Twitter. Much to my surprise he re-tweeted it, followed me, and we became internet pals. In the years that followed, Roger and I would chat on Twitter proper, and on direct messages about my ridiculous antics, and our common interests. It was a sweet and lovely friendship.
And yet, it was so much more than that. Roger encouraged me to keep writing, even when my mental illness made it mostly impossible to do anything but hide in the dark, much less write. He never judged me (well, once. I overly advertised my recap of Twilight: New Moon on Twitter and he told me to cool it, not that many people cared. Roger that, Roger.) He was the reason I met so many friends on the internet, friends that kept me relatively sane during my darkest days.
It’s been so long since we talked last. I never got to thank him for everything he gave me. Advice, laughs, and friendship. I wish he were here now. I wish I could say a proper goodbye to my friend.
My story has the virtue of being short, no matter how meaningful it was to me. Reading Ebert’s Home Video guide was my introduction, in retrospect, into not only thinking seriously about film but to writing itself. Days and weeks spent flipping through it as a child left a deep impression. Although I originally pursued a career in science, inspired by Roger I later finished an MA in Film and have since written over 400 articles about film and popular culture. While his influence on my writing is fairly obvious, I think that by now I have developed my own writer’s voice, something I know he would have appreciated.
But here’s my story. Long before I went to film school and was in a bad way in life, I wrote Roger an email. It was long, it was emotional and frankly it was embarrassing. Among other things, I mentioned that my two heroes were him and Orson Welles. I thought that spontaneous gesture, akin to Mike Yanagita in Fargo blurting out, “You’re such a super lady!”, would lead nowhere, but I underestimated Roger. He wrote back. His note was short, but I committed it to memory: “You’re very kind, but if your two heroes are me and Orson Welles, you should go on a diet!” I loved it, and fondly remembered it on the day of his death. I treasure it to this day.
That’s my story. I couldn’t ask for anything better. I miss Roger, like so many others, particularly his intellect and his wit. But my generation carries on in his wake. He leaves behind a rich legacy.
Roger Ebert was one of the driving forces behind me becoming a film critic. As I expanded my taste in movies throughout high school I would always check out his review afterward. Most of the time we were in agreement, but actually, the times we were in disagreement are what made me further respect him as a writer, primarily because his perspective typically came from an unexplored angle of the film that made me rethink my own perception, especially if I held an opposing opinion. That's not to say I molded my own thoughts to fit his own, but that he had such a powerful voice and way with words that I, and probably all of his readers, felt challenged to really explore their own judgment and how to better support their case.
I followed most of his writing and life up until his untimely passing from cancer, but what stuck out most, and what inspired me to chase my film critic dreams, was his dedication to putting in professional work even in the face of such a terrible condition. Even at the disease's worst, he would for example travel to the Oscars not just as a fan like the rest of us, but first and foremost a journalist that took pride in covering the event. Born with Muscular Dystrophy Type 2 and living a very difficult life, I took that as the ultimate proof and encouragement that even with the crappy hand I had been dealt, I could accomplish my goals.
So far, I like to think I have more than achieved success. Admittedly, I started out covering my other passion, video games (Roger Ebert is probably the only person in the world that could lay out well-articulated reasons as to why they should not be considered art without having me upset, which is another testament to his class and general respect for what he was arguing against), but the more I wrote online the better at stringing words together I became, and quickly I found myself doing what I had always wanted to do: review films. Since then I have been quoted on national television for popular blockbusters such as last year's Logan and accepted into the Chicago Film Critics Association, something I never thought would happen so soon.
I vividly remember Steven Prokopy of Third Coast Review asking me if I had submitted my application yet, responding no and mentioning that I would do it before the deadline; I just underestimated my own skill as a writer (something I clearly do a lot and have done ever since high school) and assumed I did not have the necessary amount of film journalism experience to get in. Keep in mind, I didn't have the opportunity to go to college, self-teaching myself everything I know. Much to my surprise, I was accepted on the first try, but it didn't fully settle until announcing a winner at the annual CFCA awards dinner. That was one of the happiest and proudest moments of my life.
I never met Roger Ebert, but I deeply wish I could have; he is the reason for my accomplishments. However, prior to a screening beginning, Dann Gire of The Daily Herald came up to me and complimented my work, and as our conversation extended over to Facebook Messenger he told me Roger would have approved of my writing. It's conversational, but I also feel that I look for the same things in movies as Roger, putting a high emphasis on empathy and relating to characters. Most of all, I just want to carry on that spark he gave me to chase my dreams, encouraging others to never give up and always persist. Whether it's cancer or Muscular Dystrophy or something else entirely, anything is possible. Just do what you love; for me, that's watching and reviewing as many movies as possible. And Roger's work ethic, whether he was healthy or on death's door was the greatest inspiration behind my dreams becoming reality.
In January 1999, I sat down to dinner at a Park City restaurant with the man who helped make film criticism accessible for a generation -- and helped make it possible for me to do what I do.
It was thanks to the Internet-based film critic James Berardinelli -- whom Ebert had been corresponding with for a while -- that I got that chance for a dinner with Roger Ebert at Sundance '99. Ebert had been an early adapter to the significance of the online world, and had made it a point in his annual Movie Yearbook beginning in the late 1990s to single out the Internet-based film critics he considered worthwhile. Mr. Berardinelli was one of those -- and, in Mr. Ebert's opinion circa 1998, so was I.
I was fairly dumbfounded when an online acquaintance made me aware that I'd made the cut in Ebert's Yearbook. After all, I'd been watching since his PBS Sneak Previews show with Gene Siskel in the early 1980s; he was a Pulitzer Prize-winner at a craft I'd barely begun to feel competent at; he was The Man. A thumbs-up from Roger Ebert was the most astonishing indication I'd yet received that maybe there was a shot for me at this crazy film-criticism thing. And I don't think it hurt my bona fides when I walked into the Salt Lake City Weekly offices in spring 1999 and showed the publisher a copy of those words of praise from Roger Ebert.
So in January of 1999, I was able to thank Roger in person for that kindness. I wish I could remember more of that dinner conversation; I think I was too awestruck for it to feel casual. I do remember his casual jests about Gene Siskel, who would pass away himself only a couple of months later. And I remember that he picked up the check.
In subsequent years, I'd see him periodically, and while there's no way of knowing whether he'd have remembered my name without those ever-present press badges, he always greeted me and was willing to chat. That seems to be the memory of so many people: That someone who had reached the top of his profession, instead of becoming a standoffish jerk, was instead kind and inviting.
I can remember the date. It was May 14, 1998, the day Frank Sinatra died, though Roger and I didn't know yet. We were at Cannes, walking down the steps of the Palais after the 8:30 am "seance," or screening. I don't remember the movie.
Chaz ran up the steps to collar Roger, breaking through a rank of paparazzi and videocams descending on him. Chaz beckoned Roger, whispered something in his ear, and apologized to me, it was "personal," she said. As she spoke, the blood drained out of Roger's typically rosy face. I thought someone had died. The journalists pressed in on Roger, wanting him to comment about Sinatra's death. As he composed himself he looked back at Chaz and asked, "How did Marlene sound?" Marlene, I knew, was Gene Siskel's wife. So I knew something was not OK with Gene. And I knew I was not supposed to know. Roger hugged Chaz. Then turned around to greet the press.
A French journalist shoved a mic into Roger's face, demanding a eulogy of the actor/singer. Even by Roger standards, he surpassed himself. A perfectly constructed sentence that he later used for Sinatra's obituary. "When the book of 20th century popular entertainment is written, Frank Sinatra will get a chapter as the best singer of his time. As an actor, he will be remembered for the good films, and for a distinctive screen persona as a guy who could win a heart with a song." I was awestruck by his composure and fluency.
Roger, Chaz and I walked down the steps and down the Croisette towards the Old Palais where we were to see Todd Solondz' "Happiness." I took Roger's hand and squeezed it (Chaz was squeezing the other) and said only, "Amazing assessment of Sinatra, and I don't know how you did it because you clearly have just had bad news. " He nodded. "Gene's sick." I nodded, "So I gathered." "How did you know it was Gene?" he asked. "Because your first thought was of Marlene." He gently said, "And you don't know."
Ten months later, Roger's professional partner died. Siskel & Ebert were a team for 24 years, five years longer than Laurel & Hardy.
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