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Still Present: Memories of Roger Ebert a Year After His Passing

Memories of Roger

A year after the death of Roger Ebert, the critics and contributors who have attempted to honor his legacy through their work on the site that bears his name were asked to share a memory of the man.

GLENN KENNY: In the early 1970s, when I was experiencing what are nowadays called the "tween" years, I had a school friend with whom I’d do very little besides see, and talk about, movies. This activity, besides reflecting our actual enthusiasms, was also something of a compensation for our social shortcomings at the time. We were pretty obsessive, and I remember one time, when I was about twelve or thirteen, having a conversation on the phone with this fellow in which the names of Polanski and Fellini were being bandied about, my mother saying, after I’d hung up, and in a tone more of genuine befuddlement than actual disapprobation, "Don’t you and Joseph ever talk about anything real?"

"Sneak Previews" came on the air in the late fall of 1975, when I was sixteen. My folks had moved the family away from Dumont so I didn’t hang out with Joseph as much as I had, but during one phone conversation he told me about the show. "It’s these two film critics in Chicago"—a land that at the time seemed quite remote and exotic to us both—"and they sit around and argue about the movies. They’ve both got mouths on them, but the shorter guy with the sweater—man!" And that was how I first heard of Roger Ebert. I became hooked on the show immediately because two guys sitting around talking about movies had been pretty much THE ENTIRETY OF MY LIFE UP UNTIL THAT POINT. (Actually, while I resented my parents for moving me farther from the New York skyline than I’d ever wanted to be, I made more friends and had more "growth experiences" in the new locale than I’d been able to chalk up in Dumont.) So Siskel and Ebert were our guys, in a sense, and whenever they or their show would make a move, Joseph and I would always worry. And for as many good lively critics followed in their wake at "Sneak Previews" while Gene and Roger moved to different-titled shows and slightly different formats, they were always the one—or the two—they were always our guys.

So, when I’m asked what Roger Ebert meant to me during the time when I became a movie critic full-time (which was, as it happened, around the time Gene Siskel’s death brought a permanent end to the Siskel/Ebert partnership), after having been a music critic and a magazine editor and a lot of other things in the run up to that...when I’m asked what Roger meant to me professionally, it’s kind of hard for me to come up with an answer. To be honest, Roger wasn’t a huge overt influence on me as a writer (even though, like Roger, I’ve developed a kind of conversational prose style over my career). What Roger was to me was more personal, and the one thing I regret concerning our intermittent acquaintances as professional colleagues (and don’t think it did not somehow blow my mind that I grew up to be what one could call a colleague to Roger Ebert) is that I never told him that. Or, for that matter, the extent to which his example and wisdom served me in a period when I began to face up to the condition I shared with him. So I’m thanking him now.

NELL MINOW: I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to read Roger Ebert's very first movie review in the place that would be his home for nearly half a century, The Chicago Sun-Times. I was a movie-mad teenager living in the Chicago suburbs and my mother, trying to persuade me to read the newspaper, told me that the new movie critic was closer to my age than hers. That got me interested. Roger was just 25 when he reviewed the French film "Galia" but it was all there: the passion for cinematic storytelling, the deep knowledge of genre and history, the confidence and precision of his judgment, and above all, the pure glory of his writing.

"Ever since the memorable 'Breathless' and 'Jules and Jim,' and the less memorable 'La Verite,'" he wrote, "we have been treated to a parade of young French girls running gaily toward the camera in slow motion, their hair waving in the wind in just such a way that we know immediately they are liberated, carefree, jolly and doomed." As was so often the case, Roger was vastly smarter and more entertaining than the movies he was writing about. He was such a towering presence that people sometimes overlook just how good a writer he was, the muscularity of his word choices, the cadence of his sentences. He had wit, suggesting reserve. But he loved movies with utterly unreserved passion. Roger was, always, always, always, eager to open up his heart and spirit to filmmakers and their stories every time the lights went down in the theater. There is no better description ever for one of the classic iconic moments in film than Roger's review of the title number in "Singin' in the Rain," where he writes about the "gloriously saturated ecstasy" of Gene Kelly's puddle-splashing dance. He understood it because that same purity of pleasure shone through his writing.

To paraphrase Mae West, when movies were good, Roger was very, very good. But when they were bad, he was better. Roger loved movies so much he seemed to take it personally when they were terrible. His trilogy of collections of his harshest reviews are as much fun to read as the films were agony to watch.

I love to read Roger's reviews. But my favorite Roger is his shot-by-shot commentary on "Citizen Kane." The depth of understanding he brought to every aspect of filmmaking made me see much more in a film I thought I knew well and provided insights I carry with me to every movie I watch, along with the resolve, every time the lights go down, to try to engage fully, inspired by Roger's ultimate integrity and devotion.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: I had the pleasure of working for, and with, Roger as the host of "Ebert Presents At the Movies" alongside Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in 2011. It was an awesome, thrilling, challenging year. Roger and Chaz worked hard to keep us on air as long as possible, and Ignatiy and I worked hard to make it the best show possible because we were so honored to have Roger and Gene Siskel’s legacy entrusted to us. That’s the thing that always struck me about Roger: his faith in us. It was so humbling, and so illuminating. Ignatiy was clearly brilliant beyond his years and had a striking presence, but he was only 25 and he’d never been on television before. He and I barely knew each other before we taped those first episodes – how could we possibly have any chemistry? But Roger had faith. As mentor and managing editor, he never nitpicked or hovered over us, but rather made us feel as if we were all on the same team. He could be passionate when he wanted to make a point, but he was never insulting. We carried his name but he was a true collaborator and friend. I miss him and think of him often, but especially now.

OLIVIA COLLETTE: Some folks may know that Roger Ebert discovered me during what I like to call my "Immigration Year." What even he didn’t know is that I’d decided that if nothing came of my writing over that year, the deal was to stop pursuing it actively.

Since 1998, I’d used writing in some form to earn a living: journalism, advertising, PR. I’d always hoped to write fiction, but I only got as far as false starts. Before leaving for the Immigration Year in 2009, I’d started a blog to try and work on some of those ideas.

In early 2010, Roger started following me on Twitter and encouraged his followers to read my blog. That led me to become one of his Far-Flung Correspondents (FFC), and to writing articles for a number of different publications. I discovered that I was quite keen to carry on writing non-fiction and should probably pursue journalism, so that’s exactly what I did.

A novelist friend of mine once told me, "you don’t need to go to writing workshops or take courses; you just need that one *good* reader to tell you their honest opinion." That’s who Roger was to me, and I’m luckier than most for it.

In welcoming me into his community, Roger also showed me how to be a better reader. I’m a bit competitive, and though I usually pit myself up against myself, I sometimes try to one-up others. With the FFCs, that one-upmanship became moot.

I shelved my ego and started to read more attentively. I embraced the variety of voices that emerged from this community, and I appreciated the things they had to say, especially in that they were things I’d never thought to say.

Anyone who doesn’t read the work of others to avoid having it influence their own writing is a hack. Becoming a better reader invariably made me a better writer. There’s just no other way that cookie crumbles.

MICHAL OLESZCZYK: The most remarkable thing about Roger’s absence is that he still feels very much present. Much has been said of him since he passed away last April, and thanks to the efforts of everyone at this site his legacy of dogged movie love continues. But as I reflect on the moment I learned of his death, I keep going back to the picture of him and Pauline Kael one can find inside his autobiography, "Life Itself". The picture was taken at Cannes Film Festival in 1977, when Kael served there as a member of a jury. As one looks at it, one sees two giants of film criticism smiling at each other in the middle of what seems like a great movie talk.

And yet, one couldn’t dream up a pair of critics more wildly different in style and approach. I wrote my Ph.D. on the work of Pauline Kael, thus spending enough time in the world of her writings to acquire a feel I knew her, when I fact I didn’t. On the other hand, I did meet Roger and I worked for him throughout the final year and a half of his life (the experience I wrote about elsewhere). Whereas for Kael there was only one truth–hers–worth fighting for and pursuing, Roger seemed much more open to the truths of others. In "Life Itself", he wrote of Kael’s fatal flaw, saying that "she issued instructions to those she adopted". That’s a remarkable statement for someone who nurtured so many faithful disciples himself–and yet had done so without requiring allegiance in terms of one’s taste in movies. With Roger, it was never an issue if you liked the same movies he did–the main thing was for you to tell the reader of your love in an engaging, passionate way. For all he cared, you could have even loved "North" (which he hated, hated, hated, and then hated some more), and he wouldn’t have held it against you.

I think of all this in an aftermath of a film criticism workshop I taught a couple of days ago in Warsaw. As I entered a room full of very young people (you start noticing people are young when you yourself cease to be), I felt incredibly protective of them. I hoped to nurture their movie love without making them feel their tastes were "immature" or "inferior". I wanted to tell them that they are always "right" in their judgment, as long as they can support their gut feeling with lucid argument. In other words, I wanted to tell them what Roger told to all of us. It’s through this legacy of generous movie love that he’s still keeping us company. Whereas the story of Pauline Kael’s disciples is that of allegiance and (often spectacular) rebellion, the story of Roger’s influence is simply that of being oneself and trying to do the best job one can when writing about a film. As simple as it may seem, it’s a remarkable thing to be that humble and that inspirational a teacher.

SHEILA O'MALLEY: On February 4, 2013, Roger Ebert Tweeted a link to a piece I had written on Ben Gazzara. That Tweet nearly crashed my site, and I had no idea where all of the traffic was coming from. Later that day, I received a personal email from Roger, asking me to review movies for his site. I hadn't even known I was on his radar at all. The Gazzara piece was a year old, so Roger had clearly gone digging through my archives, a huge compliment. His offer came at a time when I was quite ill, and my mother was staying with me as I recovered. It was a dark time, and Roger's emails (there would be many) were akin to pouring light into a shadowy room. And knowing how ill he was when he was sending me cheery emails, or passing on screening invites with a note, "Can you get to this??", makes his kindness that much more profound.

I knew Roger was ill. I didn't know how ill, though, and had no idea that only two months later (almost to the day of that first email) he would be gone. In those two months, I had a lot of correspondence with Roger, and he was always kindly and  enthusiastic. He let me know he was happy I was on board. My first review was of Christian Petzold's "Barbara". My mother was still staying with me when I wrote the review. It was 8 a.m. when I pressed "Send", emailing off the copy to Roger directly. I was nervous. 10 minutes later, Roger fired back his reply:

"What good writing! I like drawing us in with descriptions rather than generalizations."

Roger was always generous to newer writers, reaching out a hand, highlighting those he felt were good.  That generosity is legendary now, and those of us who benefited from it will never forget it.  I have been reading Roger Ebert since I was a child, before I even knew what a "Werner Herzog" was. His work was always important to me. And his quick dashed-off note, just two months before he died, exclaiming "What good writing!" is something I will always always treasure.

ODIE HENDERSON: When I read Roger, it felt as if he were in my room telling me about the movie he’d just seen. He’d answer Bogdanovich’s famous questions "Who the Devil Made It?" and "Who the Hell’s In it?" He’d alert me to details and facts he deemed important or worth mentioning. Sometimes he taught me about film history or technique. And he provided his opinion, which oftentimes had me talking to the newspaper. "Oh, c’mon, Roger!" I’d say to his picture. Or I’d loudly agree, as if he could hear me in Chicago.

Roger delivered his reviews in a conversational fashion that felt as if you were his only audience. The great storytellers in my family, whose techniques I have gleefully robbed, made me feel that way too. I wanted my reviews to emulate this, but I panicked when Roger assigned me my first piece. After hours of agony trying to sound like someone I thought Roger wanted to hear, I surrendered to a piece that sounded like me. Roger ran it.

To spare further agony, I sought his advice. "How should I write for you?" I e-mailed. His response:

"You should write like Odie Henderson. /eom"

Thanks for the validation, Roger.

SUSAN WLOSCZYNA: Ever since I first saw Roger Ebert verbally duke it out with Gene Siskel on the PBS incarnation of their TV show in the late ‘70s, I decided he was one of my heroes. Not that our taste in film always coincided. But as a highly opinionated person myself, I admired the passion, intensity and occasional biting sarcasm he called upon to defend his up-or-down thumb choice. Gene was no slouch, either, but Roger would actually bounce up and down in his seat sometimes when they violently disagreed. Highly entertaining.

But as I would learn on more than one occasion in the intervening years, even heroes can make mistakes. Ones that might lead to a correction in a newspaper.

When I became a critic and film writer at USA Today in 1989, I would seek out Roger as an expert source and he rarely turned me down. But one of the most memorable of our talks came about in 1993, when 1970’s "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"—Russ Meyer’s X-rated all-girl rock band sendup of 1967’s "Valley of the Dolls" that featured a script by a certain Mr. Ebert—was about to be re-released on VHS along with the original trash classic based on Jacqueline Susann’s novel.

During our interview, Roger was openly disdainful of the original "Dolls" (Susann sued 20th Century Fox for using the title without permission and won $2 million posthumously), declaring it "a horrible movie," despite the legions who worshiped it as great bad art. And after Gene dismissed "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" in a magazine article, the man who invented such unforgettable dialogue as "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" responded: "People who lack a sense of humor have trouble understanding it."

It wasn’t until I asked Roger what became of various cast members that he led me astray. He said of John LaZar, who played the flamboyant omni-sexual music producer Z-Man, that he no longer acted and worked in an art gallery. Imagine my surprise after the article ran to get a call from Z-Man himself, explaining that he was very much still an actor and was appearing in the then-upcoming film, "Eddie Presley".

I let Roger know about the error, and he was duly contrite. We both learned a lesson: never assume. And he would never mislead me again-–save for taking me to the dreadful faith-based golfing movie "Seven Days in Utopia" when I went to Chicago to interview him for his memoir in 2011. The opening line to his review: "I would rather eat a golf ball than see this movie again." That’s the Roger I loved.

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