EDITORIAL: Everyone has a Roger Ebert story and here's mine

(Image: www.tvweek.com)

As the waves of breaking news have swept social media today, I'm sure you've heard by now that famed and revered film critic, journalist, and writer Roger Ebert has passed away at the age of 70.  He was preceded in death by his longtime partner-and-sometimes-opponent Gene Siskel in 1999.  Together, the two of them redefined how we critique and talk about movies.  While both of those gentlemen achieved a national following, they will always be associated with Chicago, my current home city.  As a kid growing up in the Chicagoland area, the effect and influence of Gene and Roger were inescapable if you were a movie fan.

From the dueling journalistic reviews, Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times  and Siskel in the Chicago Tribune, to their classic shared television program Siskel and Ebert At the Movies, a movie nerd like me hung on their every word.  Reading and admiring their work, both of them were a big reason for wanting to be a movie critic in high school, even one that pales in comparison.  Though I grew up to be a school teacher instead (I knew at the turn of the century that there wasn't going to be future or career in print journalism), the movie nerd never died and continued to Ebert's work after Siskel's passing.  I never attempted to emulate either of their styles.  No one could.  I just wanted to follow their lead and I strive to with every article I write.

As the title of this editorial suggests, everyone around Chicago probably has a Roger Ebert story.  Many folks have crossed his path at theaters and numerous events in over 40 years on the beat.  His annual film festival, Ebertfest, in Champaign, Illinois is a grand gathering I've never had the chance to attend.  I'm pretty sure it won't lose its luster after his passing for the love of movies is strong in too many people.  Even if you weren't a Chicagoan, there's a good chance you've read one of his reviews in one of hundreds of newpapers around the world that shared his work.  I guaranteed that, if you have read one, it either inspired your mutual agreement on film's merit or lack thereof or set you off in your own vehement disagreement.  That's what made him great.  The Pulitzer Prize winner had the balls to share his opinion, good or bad, and rarely compromise.

Here's my Roger Ebert story.  In just beginning to write for Examiner.com as the "Frankfort Film Examiner" back in late 2010, I was approached with the opportunity to attend an exclusive critic's screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 3D.  I had never been to such a thing and, as a lowly blog writer, you would have thought I won the lottery.  For my fellow country music fans, I was like that guy with "Toes" music video from the Zac Brown Band with grandiose visions of riches after winning a $50 lottery ticket.  I was having red carpet dreams of making the big time in being able to go to an actual advance screening like the real critics do.  My review would actually come out ahead of time instead of after it was released.  Shit, my girlfriend (later my future fiance, wife, and mother of my child) and I even made t-shirts with my website character logo on them for the occasion.  I was stoked!

I was teaching at the time in Bolingbrook and got out of school quick to make the arduous rush hour communte up I-55 from work to the South Loop of downtown Chicago where my future wife worked and free parking existed.  From there we took public transportation to the AMC River East 21 theater.  I know it's just another movie theater, but I had never seen a real city theater with the escalators and all.  I was that country kid in hog heaven.  The problem was that we were running late and the movie was about to begin.

I scurried to the checkpoint outside the roped-off auditorium where I actually had to check-in any electronic devices.  I'm sure that's common anti-piracy measures now, but I still felt that exclusive.  My girlfriend said to go ahead and make the beginning of the movie.  I quietly walked in during the opening credits and it was dark.  My eyes didn't adjust (anyone else been there at a movie theater?) and I slid into the first two open seats I could find in the dark and got into pay-attention-movie-critic mode.

My girlfriend eventually make it in, found the open seat next to me, and tugged my sleeve.  She mentioned that she met a lady in the lobby who was Roger Ebert's wife.  That meant he was watching this movie too.  The nerd pulse rate went up and, during a slow beginning part of the movie, I became that rubbernecker looking around for the white-haired silhouette and guise that I would likely recognize.  Where would he be?

Low and behold, HE'S IN THE VERY SEAT NEXT TO MY LEFT, sharing an armrest.  I'm sitting next to Roger Ebert watching a movie.  In my head, I was now in "holy shit" mode.

He watched the movie implicitly, took no notes, and made few fidgets.  When the credits hit and the lights were still down, he left his seat and excused himself quickly and silently before anyone else.  For those who've seen the man in his last few years, I'm sure you know that he couldn't talk without assistance.  I wasn't going to ask him what he thought of the movie.  Like everyone else his age, the guy probably had to pee.  I know my future wife sure did.

After I collected my girlfriend and things, we perused through the lobby and back down the escalators to leave.  Roger was, like any regular guy, stopped to validate his parking at a payment kiosk.  We shared a glance and a simple nod.  I wasn't going to bother him for a giddy handshake or an autograph.  I'm not that kind of guy and we each went home.

I know that story, for obvious reasons of his health, doesn't have any conversation or cool back-and-forth reparte.  For me, I didn't need it.  Sharing his presence and a nod was cool enough for me.  To watch a movie at the same time was a cool enough equivalent to playing catch with your hero as a baseball or football fan.  If anything I wish I could have met him before his health robbed him of his speaking.  Had he could, I have this vision of a guy holding court after that movie ends instead of meekly going his own way to avoid the crowd.  Even after meeting him, the Roger Ebert I will choose to remember is the one exchanging volleys with Siskel on that television balcony from their show.

I'll take my little Roger Ebert story and lift a glass to him today.  Journalism and not just Hollywood has lost a great and a guiding light today.  To think a man in his condition could still write with the vigor of over 200 reviews a year up until his death, in addition to his blog, books, and columns, endlessly impresses me.  It helps me appreciate that my fingers move with as much a voice as my mouth and that losing one of them doesn't take that voice away.

As for final thoughts, I'd like to share some of his own written voice.  He wrote a fascinating piece in September 2011 about facing the prospect of death.  As a broken Catholic who constantly questions the idea of faith and the big "what if's," I appreciated his clarity, his candor, and share a bit of his uncertainty.  Like a person reading multiple movie reviews of the same movie, if you read nothing else today about the single subject of Roger Ebert, make it this and put the other criticism and tributes aside.  It's powerful and prophetic stuff.  Once again, I tip my hat and thank the man.  I wouldn't be here without him, even if he doesn't know it.

"I Do No Fear Death" by Roger Ebert:  http://www.salon.com/2011/09/15/roger_ebert/