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How Roger Ebert Gave Me a Voice

Written by , on April 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm 

As a military brat who moved back and forth between America and Europe throughout my childhood, I was never able to solidify much of a stable social life. It’s a tough thing to get a grip on when you’re constantly being uprooted and being forced to make new friends — something that becomes increasingly hard the older you get. At some point early on I accepted this, turning to books and film for entertainment. Cinema became something of an obsession. It was something I could follow no matter where I went.

By the time I was 12 years old I had already stumbled upon IMDb.com and begun the process of submitting reviews to the site, simply out of boredom, but it became an addiction. Looking back now, of course, the things I wrote make me cringe – but I was hooked. Within a year or so, I had started my own website, “Wired On Movies,” a portal about as impressive as its title, but I poured countless hours into designing it with my Geocities editor, creating page templates, posting new reviews every day. I even bought my own .com for it. I was as obsessed with writing about film as I was with film itself, and it must have been around this time that I first started reading Roger Ebert’s reviews.

Ebert was an immediate influence on me – laidback in prose, with a conversationalist tone; full of knowledge without coming across as pretentious in any manner. I was already somewhat familiar with his presence on “At the Movies” – because I think everyone from my generation has a cursory familiarity with the “Thumbs Up” guys – but reading his reviews must have helped shape my interest in movies even further.

I had been running my film website for a little while when I found a webpage listing supposed e-mail addresses of celebrities and public figures. I had the naïve idea to e-mail some of them with links to my website, asking for input but probably mainly seeking any generic comments that could be remotely twisted and used to endorse my site; I was about fourteen years old and seeking validation.

Most of the e-mails – and I can’t even remember names of most of the intended recipients – were either returned or ignored. I recall responses from only a couple – Meg Ryan told me to call her publicist to set up an interview for my site (even though I only asked for her to look at it, but hey, at least she was nice enough to reply), and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum sent a brief, impersonal message recommending I purchase his insanely over-priced film theory book in hardcover format. For whatever reason, I never expected a reply from Roger Ebert, and his e-mail address – REBERT@COMPUSERVE.COM in all caps – looked the most obviously fake of them all.

I often think about the e-mails I received from Ebert over the course of the next year or so and hate myself for not saving back-ups. I no longer have access to the e-mail address used to correspond with him, so they are likely lost forever. However, I am able to recollect the gist of the one I received in my inbox the next morning:

John,

I applaud your enthusiasm and film criticism. Keep up the great work! Send me your address and I’ll forward you a copy of my Great Movies book.

Best,

Roger Ebert

I still have that hardcover copy of Great Movies that he sent me with the personalized inscription on the title page: “For John – movie critic!” Even the mailing address on the package was handwritten; he wasn’t just having some poor secretary forward along pre-autographed copies of his book to fans. He had actually taken time out of his day to do this for a young fan who barely even expected a reply.

Of course, being a young teen, I didn’t recognize Ebert’s generosity for what it was, and suddenly thought I had a new mentor penpal. In 2003, the Chicago Sun-Times had not yet released an archive of Ebert’s older film reviews, so those pre-dating the late 1990s were unavailable to read. This was around the time that I was hungrily devouring “classic” cinema, and I remember writing to him, asking what his thoughts were on The Godfather Part II, and sending along a copy of my own review, as if he would care what I thought; then attempting to debate him when he replied with the archived copy of his original 1974 article, giving it a mere three out of four stars, and telling me, “I liked it, but not as much as the first one.” (I still think he was sadly mistaken on that one.) Often times he wouldn’t respond to the follow-ups I wrote – and looking back now, I can’t say I’m surprised — but he never ignored any of my initial messages.

I think the last e-mail I sent to Mr. Ebert was toward the end of 2003, almost a full year after I had first begun corresponding with him. This was when he was about to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer, his first procedure in what would become a decade-long battle with the disease that would ultimately take his life. I don’t recall my exact words, but I wished him luck and hoped he would make a speedy recovery.

Over the course of the following years, I joined the staff of various film websites, even managing to get featured on Rotten Tomatoes, never telling anyone my true age as I somehow expected it would hinder my ability to be taken seriously as a journalist. I wrote reviews for my high school paper, and started a new website, which lasted for quite a while. In 2009, I pursued a journalism degree at Penn State. I honestly am not sure that I would have done any of these things if I had never been influenced by Roger Ebert’s reviews, or encouraged by his e-mails.

After his first leave of absence due to cancer in 2009, I quickly found that not being able to check in and see what he thought of certain new releases almost…bothered me. It was like some formerly unrecognized piece of my weekly routine was missing. I never really acknowledged the fact that I read his commentary every week, but it wasn’t until it wasn’t there that I realized it.

And yet Ebert never let the disease get the best of him, whether through his writing or his outlook on life. In the past few years, he has probably had one of the most impressive and inspiring third acts of any writer, ever.

Through his blog, which he had been managing for a few years now up until his death, he gave us more than just film reviews – he spoke candidly about his life, his beliefs, his passions, and generated some of the most intelligent, civil discourses I’ve ever seen from commentators on a weblog. He once claimed to have barely ever had to monitor or edit user comments, priding himself in the decency of his readers.

Ebert was universally respected and appealed to film snobs and everymen alike because of his directness, I think, and his lack of cynicism or snide aloofness. He could be bitter, sure, like most great writers; he was, at times, exasperatingly funny. (His zero-star movie reviews are some of the funniest, cleverest things I’ll ever read.) Independent and foreign film fans could count on him for valued insight as much as Joe Schmoe deciding whether to go see the newest blockbuster. He seemingly never approached any film with the mindset that he was above it, or that his film expertise entitled him to look down upon something other critics would find pedestrian. He was a champion of underdogs, with his annual Ebertfest, but was also the guy who gave Die Hard 2 three and a half stars. One of the most poignant things I think he ever wrote, in describing the now-classic comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles, was: “The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart… Strange, how much poignancy creeps into this comedy, and only becomes stronger while we’re laughing.” That has lingered with me for years, perhaps because I have a soft spot for that particular film; but I am reminded of it whenever I encounter a film that I feel like I should be guilty for enjoying.

When news broke this week of Roger Ebert’s passing, I was immediately saddened. At the risk of sounding inhumane, some celebrity deaths barely move me – without a connection to the person of some kind, it’s hard to feel anything more than basic human sympathy for their friends and families. But I am realizing today that I felt a deep connection with Ebert’s writing, as well as Ebert as a person. When someone reaches the height of popularity in a specific field, it’s a given that haters will crawl out of the woodwork. What astonishes me about the reaction to Roger Ebert’s passing is that no one has any ill words for him; seemingly everyone liked the guy, and in the past day or so I’ve read accounts from other fans who shared similar stories to my own.

Luckily, before he passed, I was able to tell him just how much those e-mails from over a decade ago meant to me. One day, after reading his blog (as I often did), I left an off-topic comment explaining who I was and reminding him of what he had done for me, and told him that I never got a chance to properly thank him. As an aspiring 14-year-old writer, his correspondence had meant so much to me. As an adult, thinking back on our correspondence, I think it may mean even more.

I will miss being able to read Mr. Ebert’s reviews, but more than that, I think I will miss him as a person. That’s a strange thing to say about someone you’ve never met, but it’s possible that his writing spoke more directly to me than any other. He was simply the best at what he did, and there will never be another like him.

John Ulmer is a student at Pennsylvania State University and has contributed to our sister music site, Beats Per Minute.


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