Two thumbs up

Roger Ebert, right, had a radio face and a genius that nobody can touch. Image from Buena Vista Television/Everett Collection

Roger Ebert, right, had a radio face and a genius that nobody can touch. Image from Buena Vista Television/Everett Collection

The death of Roger Ebert hit me harder than I expected it would.

Ebert, the longtime Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, was etched in my memory at an early age, thanks to “Siskel & Ebert,” which was standard weekend viewing in my childhood home. I marveled at two things:

  • The fact that these two guys could disagree so strongly that their debates devolved into shouting matches…and in an instant, the shouting stopped, as if someone shut off a spigot, and they moved on to the next movie, buoyantly cheerful, still friends.
  • The fact that this really homely dude was a successful TV personality. I’m aware that makes my 9-year-old self sound shallow. I’m aware I’m throwing stones in a glass house. But, fact: Ebert was no supermodel.

Pre-Internet, I didn’t have a chance to read many of his reviews. The Star Tribune had its own movie critic, and I doubt I had ready access to many rags that syndicated his work. More’s the pity. My first few years after J-school, Ebert’s online archive was a ready source of amusement and education for this young film buff. My fascination with movies was fanned when I took a part-time job at Blockbuster to make ends meet. (Entry-level copy editors probably shouldn’t buy new cars. Or live alone. Or make any financial decisions without wise counsel.) I had unlimited access to free movies and watched them by the dozen, good and bad, old and new.

Unlike so many columnists, Roger Ebert was plainspoken. He wasn’t afraid to love movies that were clearly mainstream, but he was nobody’s sycophant. He gave me ideas. He wrote with an unwavering love of the crafts of writing and filmmaking. He was humble but authoritative, funny but serious, real but mythic.

I read his memoir cover to cover. I loved the pure ordinariness of his childhood. His childhood vignettes reminded me eerily of those recounted by Stephen King. I suspect that’s because of some ghost of a similarity in their writing styles more than any shared plane of experience (though they’re pretty much of the same generation). I loved that he co-wrote “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” I loved the honesty and the absence of clichés.

I have a list of celebrities, I often joke, made of up people I’d love to buy a beer for. Tina Fey, Paul Giamatti, Monica Lewinsky (yes, I just went there), Joan Didion, Rob Reiner. The 2013 update includes some Washington, D.C., glitterati.

Roger Ebert would have been on that list, too, but my feelings about him are a bit deeper. There’s a tiny hole in my heart: He’s like the pal I didn’t keep in touch with well enough (and yes, I’m reminded of my dear friend Martha Howard, who died suddenly late last year). I didn’t have the chance to ask all the questions that stacked up in my cluttered brain. I didn’t read his work in a timely manner. I was a bad friend.

I hope Roger understands — if he’s out there in the universe somewhere, laughing at the ludicrousness of humanity — that I loved his work and tried to be a good disciple. Movie critic was on my nine-lives list of professions, along with bookstore owner, local columnist, property appraiser and romance novelist. The only other movie-critic role model I had was Pauline Kael, who sat squarely in the “myth” category — a booming voice of opinionation without Ebert’s sensitivity, down-to-earth humor and humility.

There will never be another Ebert. But his death has me wondering if I should write more and dream bigger.


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