Oh, Roger. The balcony is closedPosted: April 5, 2013
I’m a cancer survivor. Twice. 16 years and counting. So I had particular empathy for Roger Ebert’s decade-plus battle with cancer. Despite his pain, many surgeries, and finally his inability to eat, drink or speak, he never flagged in his writing, film reviewing and outrage at political insanity. In 2012, he reviewed 306 films, his record. When he died yesterday, his tweet count was over 31,000.
He didn’t invent it, but he thrived on the internet, tweeting and blogging madly. He was one of the first people I followed on Twitter (just after Bruce Springsteen, who actually doesn’t tweet) and found him endlessly provocative. He didn’t just review and write about films. He also commented upon and provided links to items on important social issues and political controversies. He was an unreconstructed liberal and I valued his comments.
Something Roger said in his memoir helped get me started on this blog. I quote this on my What I Believe page. He said his blog taught him how to organize the accumulation of a lifetime. ”It pushed me into first person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself into manageable fragments.” For Ebert, his blog was the beginning of writing his memoir, Life Itself (2011, Grand Central Publishing).
I did meet Roger and his wife Chaz once years ago at LAX. I was waiting to get home from a business trip and I knew they had been doing something much more glamorous in Hollywood. I had the opportunity to speak to him and I said something silly about a review he had written about a film I liked. I wished we could have had a longer conversation.
I regret not taking any of his film classes but reading his reviews ultimately was like listening to a film scholar. He was a humanistic reviewer. He wrote thoughtfully about the characters in the films he reviewed and often expressed insights that made a film and its people more meaningful. Recently I wrote here about This Must Be the Place, which is admittedly a rather weird film (just my type). A lot of reviews were negative or neutral at best. But Roger made an effort to help us understand Cheyenne, the aging glam rock star, and his sadness, a part totally inhabited by Sean Penn. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/03/21/whats-showing-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/
Roger introduced me to many types of films, and showed me how to appreciate the skills of directors as well as cinematographers and other production staff. He wrote about the work of Andrew Sarris, whose concept of the director as “auteur,” or the true author of the film, is important in contemporary film viewing and in encouraging us to follow the work of certain directors.
I always loved movies, from the time I was old enough to walk to the Montclare Theater on Grand and Harlem with my friends Carol and Dolores. When we were in high school, we went to the Mercury Theater on North Avenue and Harlem, where we could smoke in the bathroom and flirt with boys from other high schools. Movies were more than entertainment.
After I subscribed to Netflix and had access to its large film archive, I was able to visit or revisit many classic, foreign and indie films that I had either seen in decades past or missed entirely. I started catching up on the great directors I had missed, reading Roger’s reviews as I went along. It was fun to read his early reviews of great directors like Altman, Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Kieslowski, Lang, Scorcese and Welles and later reviews of some of my favorite contemporary madmen like Pedro Almodovar, Guy Maddin, Christopher Guest, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. (What would I do without imdb.com, the wayback machine for movie junkies?)
Of all the obits and encomiums about him, one of my favorites is the editorial on the back of the special Roger Ebert wraparound section in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s titled “Do you love what you do?” and describes how Roger did. And we all should.
There are many fine film reviewers today, like Tony Scott. Peter Travers, David Edelstein, Dana Stevens and Mick LaSalle. But none of them will replace Roger. Because the balcony is closed.
If you’d like behind-the-scenes insights about the Siskel and Ebert TV era, I recommend an ebook titled Enemies, A Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert by Josh Schollmeyer. It’s a series of interview quotes about every aspect of their TV history from many of the people they worked with. The ebook is published by Now and Then Reader, which publishes original short-form nonfiction in digital formats. See their site at nowandthenreader.com.