Remembering Roger Ebert

Penguins, Morgan Freeman and a French movie began my online acquaintance with Roger Ebert. I had watched his TV program “Siskel and Ebert At the Movies” at a time when I had little money and rarely went to the movies. Listening to their comments, I would decide on what movie was worth my time and money. When I was in grad school (the first time at UCLA) my friends and I avoided Friday night traffic by seeing a movie with discount tickets. I didn’t own a TV then so we went to see whatever had the best buzz. Later, I was often out at a different type of theater, seeing live actors on a stage and rarely had time for movies except to rent them for research. I didn’t come back to Roger Ebert until I began copy editing for a weekly newspaper. The movie critic drove me crazy and I had to do a lot of fact-checking and then I turned to Roger Ebert’s website. I was again hooked into a weekly habit.

Being a copy editor, became a compulsion (I can still remember how delighted I was to find a typo in “The New Yorker”). I noticed a few errors here and there in Roger’s reviews. So I would send an email. You never know how people will react. Some people get angry. Some people are grateful. I know I would be (even if the person has a snide way of pointing the error out).

In 2005, after seeing a particularly funny mistake, I sent an email and then almost immediately I received a personal email reply from Roger Ebert. Roger was charming and informal. I believe he said something about blushing at his mistake. I, out of respect, continued to call him Mr. Ebert. Without telling me, he acknowledged me in one of his books. And eventually, last year I started calling him Roger.

When Roger took on Twitter and Facebook, I began to send things that I thought would amuse him, some of which were for public consumption. Others were just for him, particularly when I felt he was struggling under the dark cloud of illness. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he asked me to write for a relatively new column on his website: The Demanders. That was, a frightening task. I was unsure of my voice though I had been blogging sometimes as a snobby male collie (and the Scottish Collie Anti-Defamation League), sometimes as a belligerently bossy bitch of the human sort, sometimes as a hopeful idealist with prayers on my lips, and other times as a guerrilla geisha girl. I didn’t know what voice would be appropriate and writing for Roger was both a dream and a nightmare.

Roger was ever encouraging and gentle with his advice. Last year, he invited me to be a panelist for Ebertfest. I have been to film festivals before and since and yet Ebertfest was a true reflection of Roger’s generosity, kindness, and love for Illinois, particularly the University of Illinois. It was like the best kind of family reunion–a gathering of a community who can talk intelligently and respectfully with each other. Through Roger, I met some wonderful people with whom I share emails and information on a weekly basis now.

Like Ebertfest, is not just about Roger, but about a community of people from all countries, races, religions and walks of life who love movies–not just blockbusters but movies that are made with more love than money. Now I see that I’ve used the word love too much, but Roger was about spreading the joy and love of movies. This year’s Ebertfest will feature Jack Black and the black comedy “Bernie.”

So I thank the writers of “March of the Penguins” (Luc Jacquet and Michel Fessler), Morgan Freeman and the emperor penguins (and that harried copy editor who let those mistakes slip by) for giving me the opportunity to know Roger Ebert.  I hope the emperor penguins will survive and, although they exist in a more hospitable climate than Antarctica, I also hope that and Ebertfest will continue for many years to come, spreading the glowing warmth that was Roger Ebert. This is one type of global warming would actually benefit the world and make it a better place to live.

–This essay was sent to Indiewire in response to their blanket request for comments and memories about Roger Ebert after his death on 4 April 2013.

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