Electric Shadow

Ebert: Remembrances of Presence

I've seen some rather questionable hitwhoring posts, like a gallery/clickpost at Huffington Post that covers Ebert's favorite movies of every year, and some aggregate linkposts that point to every obituary some intern found thanks to a Google Alert. Thankfully, that sort of junk is the extreme minority of what I've read.

Rather than get salty and nasty about all of that, I thought it more in keeping with what friends who knew Roger personally would say his impulse would be: ignore the morose and negative and focus on the positive. That's what I tried to do in what I wrote yesterday.

I've collected links to articles I've read about Roger that were written over the last couple of days. I picked ones that moved me and that I think you should read. Each link is accompanied by a short selection, all of which celebrate the good work and good practices that Ebert encouraged and nurtured in multiple generations of writers.

Glenn Kenny:

The thumbs were a marketing tool. A lamentable one? I'm not one to say, especially as I get older. We are either of the world or opposed to it. Having opted to be of the world, they played by its rules, but also gave them some pushback. Roger was giving pushback to the right people until the end.

How could one not admire that? So of course I did. But as a critic, the thing I had the most admiration of Roger for was  something I sometimes flatter myself to think of as an affinity with him: his unflagging openness, aesthetic and otherwise. As I wrote in the obit, Ebert "understood genres but didn't truck in genre hierarchies." He could enjoy what some critics refer to as "trash" without making a big production out of making sure everyone reading understood he was the kind of critic who could "enjoy trash," if you follow me. And he was always a cheerleader for maintained intellectual curiosity.

Matt Zoller Seitz manages a great deal in just his opening graph:

No one was better at describing the emotional experience of watching a film than Roger Ebert. Few were better at describing the emotional experience of life.  Roger knew the two experiences were one and the same. That was his genius.

Roger lived to introduce us to new films, new faces, new ways of thinking and seeing. When he got excited – as he did about Spike Lee, Steve James, Zhang Yimou, Jane Campion, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh and all the other filmmakers he helped put on the map – his words had an evangelical fervor; when he turned melancholy or introspective, they had a Talmudic wisdom. At its most impassioned, Roger’s writing (and his spirited declarations on the old TV shows) reminded me of my favorite admonition from Corinthians, that “in the assembly”  -- i.e. the church -- “I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in another language.”  Roger spoke for the assembly, in simple but eloquent language. He described films, filmmakers and even whole film movements in punchy sentences and colloquial phrases and controlled bursts of lyricism that stimulated discussion rather than shutting it down. “Without ever once deviating from a conversational tone, Ebert could make watching Welles, Bresson, Ozu and Mizoguchi sound like nothing less than the purest joy,” wrote Variety’s Justin Chang.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in a piece written as a letter to Roger that contains the kind of honesty and openness that Ebert so treasured:

I was married in the basement of the county courthouse 11 days later. The judge was about to take her lunch break, and the ceremony was conducted in a hurry. The next day, we began rehearsals for Ebert Presents: At the Movies. The first day of taping, I couldn’t stop playing with my wedding ring, which felt foreign on my hand. I’d never worn a ring before; I could always feel its weight, its presence. Now, on the rare occasions when I take it off, my hand feels naked, too light.

In e-mails, you were enthusiastic about the future. You and Chaz were taking control of your website—the first step in an ambitious digital expansion. You were carefully managing every aspect. You sent me an e-mail with detailed instructions about formatting for review aggregators—business stuff. You ended it with: “Ignatiy, someday your newborn will click on that link.”

Roger's right-hand man Jim Emerson on the internal conflict over the editing of Roger's final review, for Malick's To the Wonder:

Roger Ebert's last review is on the screen in front of me and I can't quite bring myself to deal with it. I'd like to get it posted right away because I know that's what Roger would want under the circumstances. ("We'll be getting a lot of traffic!") Actually, he filed two or three other reviews before his condition took a sudden turn for the worse. But this final one -- sent March 16 and labeled "FOR USE as needed," is of Terence Malick's "To the Wonder," which (spoiler warning) he liked quite a lot. Publicists might object that it hasn't opened in Chicago yet, but Roger wasn'tjust a Chicago movie critic (though he certainly was that). I can imagine his email now: "Who's going to complain? It's three and a half stars!"

My friend and mentor (whether he approves of the title or not) Drew McWeeny on his "weekend in Chapaign-Urbana":

Then in March of 2002, Roger wrote and asked me if I would like to join him in Champaign-Urbana, his hometown, to be a guest at his Overlooked Film Festival. He wanted to do a double-feature of Fritz Lang's original silent masterpiece "Metropolis" and the Rin Taro anime film "Metropolis," and he wanted me to join him for a conversation about anime onstage afterwards.

I have never said yes to an invitation faster than I did that day.

There was an opening night party, so as soon as I was dressed, I headed back out to the party, where I got to meet Roger. The party ran late, and at the end of it, Roger told me that he'd be happy to take me home.

What followed was a two hour drive around Champaign-Urbana, just the two of us in the car, as he told me stories about his childhood and his time in college and as we discussed film and life and everything else. It was surreal, but it also served as the last step in me seeing Roger as not just an icon, not just one of my heroes, but as a friend, as an exceedingly decent person who had built a life for himself that I admired greatly.

I've read that one four times.

Dana Stevens at Slate wrote to Roger as a pre-teen:

I’m not sure how old I was when I wrote Roger Ebert a letter asking for his advice on how to become a film critic, but judging from the other documents in the manila envelope where I’ve kept his response ever since, I must have been somewhere between 11 and 13. Ebert’s prompt and kind answer, typed on Chicago Sun-Times stationery using a typewriter with a wonky T key, took my query more seriously than it deserved, suggesting colleges with strong film programs I might consider, advising me to “see all the good movies you can,” and most of all encouraging me to “write-write-write for anyplace that will print your stuff.”

Richard Roeper, who rightly declares that a Mount Rushmore for film critics would start with Roger Ebert:

Roger would have told me to stop fretting and start writing.

He was corny. For years, Roger and Chaz would host massive Fourth of July parties at his home in Michigan, and Roger would always wear his wonderfully tacky American flag shirt while presiding over the karaoke contest and the barbecue and the dancing on the temporary floor installed in the backyard. You never saw him happier than when he was surrounded by family and friends.

He was kind. As a television partner, Roger was exceedingly generous. Even though he was risking the wrath of Disney for spilling the news too soon, Roger told me I had the job before Disney told me I had the job. When the news was made official, Roger took me aside and said, “This is a partnership. You’re not a guest on the Roger Ebert show. You’re my co-host. It’s a 50-50 deal.”

And so it was. We had equal time on “Ebert & Roeper.” The second time we appeared on “The Tonight Show,” Roger insisted it was my turn to take the lead and sit in the chair next to Jay, with Roger on the sofa.

Former editor Steven S. Duke on Ebert's everyman, salaryman demeanor:

He also was — for those who remember him from television in that cushy theater with Gene Siskel or Richard Roeper — in person exactly the man that you see or read about. He was warm, gracious, embracing, funny, generous. There was nothing false about him. He was also, despite the bulk of his income coming from television at the point that I was working with him — he called himself a newspaperman. That was his identity. He never viewed himself as a star, never viewed himself as a television performer. He was very much a proletarian newspaperman and a proud member of the working press fraternity.

Matt Singer's opening to a piece in which (among other things) he recounts the multiple book signing encounters he had with Roger:

Back when MySpace was a thing, you had to fill your profile with all these tidbits of information: favorite movies, books, television shows and so on. There was also a spot at the bottom to list your heroes. On my page -- which still exists, if you want to fact check me on this -- I wrote two names: Roger Ebert and Spider-Man.

Christy Lemire:

Once he was no longer able to speak, he turned his blog into an outpouring of musings on every topic imaginable, from alcoholism to atheism. In some ways, I actually enjoyed his writings on subjects outside of film even more. They reflected a curiosity, a yearning to be a citizen of the world rather than just a big fish in a particular pond.

Justin Chang, on Ebert's engagement with his readers and those who disagreed with him:

To my surprise, Ebert saw fit not only to publish my letter in his Movie Answer Man column, but also to write me a personal reply, in which he thanked me for getting in touch, conceded some of my points while gently reasserting his own, and told me he respected my work. Shamed but not silenced, I sent back a bloated apology, which occasioned another polite response and an altogether friendlier, more harmonious back-and-forth. I may have started us off on the wrong foot, but Roger redeemed our encounter with his characteristic good nature and genuine delight in engaging with his readers — the very qualities that made him, for so many of us, an ideal companion at the movies.

My takeaway lesson was that an act of grace, especially one coming from an elder and a superior, will always prevail over a difference of opinion. And it was the consummate grace of Ebert’s voice — that inimitable blend of wit, erudition, amiability and common sense — that made him our most important and indispensable film critic, someone you loved to read no matter how violently you disagreed with him. Like all great thinkers and writers, he rendered irrelevant the small-minded tyranny of right and wrong answers through his vivid, literate and unpretentious command of language. His thumbs may have changed the face of criticism, but it is Ebert’s writing for which he will be most fondly and significantly remembered.

Now a pile of my pals at Ain't It Cool.

Eric Vespe:

I personally only met the man once. It was at Sundance and I sat in a group with him watching the awful, horrible, agonizing fuck you of a movie TWELVE, directed by Joel Schumacher. Before the film he was engaged in a conversation with my pal Katey Rich of Cinemablend. He had his surgery at that time, so he didn’t have the ability to speak, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from communicating.

The conversation consisted of Ebert asking Katey questions by writing them on a piece of paper and handing it over, then taking part in the conversation that would begin there with more paper notes, head nods and hand gestures.

After the film I made a point to shake his hand and tell him how much his work with Gene Siskel meant to me growing up. He looked down at my badge (which read ERIC VESPE – Ain’t It Cool News), picked it up off my chest, pointed to it and gave me his incredibly famous thumbs up.

Without a single word, only a gladiatorial gesture, he made me smile for a solid 24 hours. I imagine that’s how he made thousands of filmmakers, old and young alike, feel in his long career as a critic.

Steve Prokopy:

I've told this story before, right after it happened in 2002. I was lucky enough to attend one of the Ebert & Roeper Film Festival at Sea events, and during one of the Q&As, one question that came up had to do with the internet’s influence on movies and movie marketing. Roger answered that the influence was two-fold: one, that audiences in general know more about a film before its release. Everything from casting news, effects previews, trailers, to fights on the sets are chronicled on various movie-related sites on the internet. Second, a whole crop of "young, talented critics" has arisen, many of whom have a larger reading audience than most print critics. They have a different agenda for liking or disliking a film, and are not shy or polite about expressing their opinions. He continued:

Ebert: In fact, there’s someone here from Ain’t It Cool News who writes under the name Capone. Where are you? [I tentatively raised my hand.] Stand up for a second. [I did as told.]

Richard Roeper: They write under assumed names at that site, but there’s what he looks like!

Ebert: And he’s a good example of one of these up-and-coming critics whom the movie studios dislike, but are becoming more and more a part of the process and the mainstream. His reviews are funny but still manage to make their point as well, if not better than, any "legitimate" film critic.

And in that single moment, I went from wanted to be a film critic to wanted to be one for the rest of my life. You see, Roger didn't see film criticism as a competition; even his rivalry with Gene Siskel was more about working for competing newspaper than any dislike he had for the man. He supported the critics and other writers he loved with as much passion as he did his own work. He would tout them because they were furthering the cause of putting eyes on movies that we all loved, and that should always be the goal.

Alan Cerny:

Ebert taught me I wasn’t alone. Through his words and writing, his passion fed my own. I swore that if I wasn’t going to make movies, then by God I’d be writing about them. It’s been a drive that’s stayed with me my entire life, and good or bad I’ve tried to live up to that drive every day. Some days I fail miserably, and then I look at Roger Ebert, who even when losing his voice and his health had a fire for cinema that I wanted so badly to sustain in myself. I remember when DO THE RIGHT THING came out, and all (or most) of America railed about its supposed violence and its inciting of the races. But Roger Ebert knew the score. He knew that it was a masterpiece, and the way he and Siskel championed that film in those turbulent times still shows me that, goddammit, film advocacy MEANS SOMETHING. Film reflects our lives, and Ebert helped show us all that criticism can be a fervent, revolutionary act as much as picking up a gun and storming a bulkhead could be. The power of his words, even when I disagreed with him, always filled me with that zeal.

Jeremy Smith:

As I got older, I began to seek out their writing, and soon found myself relating to Ebert's way of reviewing a movie - and, man, was he relatable. When Ebert loved a film (and he was quick to love, which speaks to what a quality human being he was), it was an exhilarating explosion of emotional and intellectual ardor. Before he began revisiting films as part of his essential "The Great Movies" column, I'd read and re-read his appreciations of THE GODFATHER, STAR WARS (he was onboard from day one) and E.T. Of course, it was always an event when he wrote about Martin Scorsese, who was a fellow guilt-ridden Roman Catholic. But I especially loved it when he sparked to an unappreciated artist's work. He was an early admirer of Jennifer Jason Leigh, praising her work in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH while most rushed to condemn the film wholesale (Ebert didn't like it either, but he responded to the performances). Ebert was also a vociferous defender of Spike Lee's from the beginning, going on to write several definitive pieces on DO THE RIGHT THING. That's what was so great about Ebert: when a film got to him, he couldn't stop writing about it. And when a similarly-themed film let him down, he'd sometimes use the column space to champion the better movie.

All those are collected in a big mega-length piece linked above as well as here.

The best bit from Harry Knowles' standalone piece:

I most loved their advocacy episodes where they took and highlighted a career, or films they wanted to be included in the Academy’s OSCARS.   Read Roger’s writing, it is something beautiful.   It can enrage and inspire.   And every single word, he believed.   In those reviews he teaches you about life, art and the thoughts he had about it all.   Roger Ebert had a beautiful life and he lived it spectacularly.  

To be the sort of person that always gives a leg up, to encourage, instead of discouraging.   Roger was an enthusiastic advocate for that which I love so dear, FILM.  To watch it, to make it, to write about it, to exhibit it and to celebrate it.   He was what was best about those of us that choose to spend our lives in a darkened theater with our fellow weirdos and tell the world about the dreams we saw projected there.

Todd McCarthy, on his and Ebert's campaign for more art houses:

One early article Roger wrote had to do with the dire shortage of art house cinemas in our fine city. As a high school student, I was just developing a hunger for foreign films, and a lot of great ones were coming out in those days. We'd read about them when they opened in New York, but precious few would make it to Chicago, principally because there were only two, perhaps three, theaters on the North Side that would show them and they were typically booked for months at a time showing hits such as A Man and a WomanKing of Hearts and The Shop on Main Street. As a result of this logjam, many important foreign films would never make it to Chicago at all.

Inspired by Roger's sensitivity to this situation, I wrote a letter commending his attention to it and, as I recall, enumerating all the films I could think of that were caught in the backlog. He ran it right away, which resulted in my writing another letter about something else, and then another, culminating in his invitation to join him one day down at the popular journalists' watering hole, O'Rourke's. I was too young to join Roger in downing a few, but we nonetheless discussed everything from the brilliance ofRaoul Coutard's cinematography to our desperate hunger to see Orson Welles' Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), which we eventually saw on opening night when this great but blighted film had its belated Chicago debut at a former burlesque house (home of stripper Babette Bardot) that had been converted to a highbrow haven -- inspired, in our minds, by our campaign for more art houses. (It didn't last long.)

Scott Foundas:

As I would later learn, this encounter was exceptional for me but nothing unusual for Roger, who always took a keen interest in the next generation, and who managed — even in a time before email — to maintain a voluminous ongoing correspondence with fans, detractors, colleagues and humble advice-seekers. He was a true man of the people in a profession often accused of smug elitism.

I've returned to Andy Ihnatko's brief but deeply moving piece more than any other:

I’ve lost one of my favorite writers of all time. I’ve lost one of my most trusted, respected, and generous advisors on all subjects that could possibly matter to a modern human being. And I’ve lost a great friend of more than 20 years.

But I still have him in the form of the finest and highest standard of what it means to be a journalist and critic. All my life, Roger Ebert has always been the bar I’ve tried to reach. I never will. But his example has made me stronger through failure.