I actually cried when I learned Roger Ebert had died. Part of those tears were relief that his struggle was over but most were sadness knowing that the “voice” would now fall silent not just to the ears- as had been the case for the past six or so years- but on the page as well.
For those who followed him via social media, Ebert was truly a wonder to behold. Years of typing as a journalist enabled him to thrive online where he now had an unfair advantage over all of us two-fingered typists. Robbed of his vocal chords, he took to texting, tweeting and blogging like a fish to water and redefined film criticism as an ongoing dialogue. In the Global Village, Ebert was a superhero.
As he polished his writing for the day, he often held an impromptu late-night guessing game on Facebook. He would post a picture and challenge us to identify it. It was obvious Ebert delighted in the immediate feedback he got from his readers online, something which had been lacking in previous media.
Ebert understood media better than most, which was key to the success of his review programs. I first tuned in to Sneak Previews on PBS to watch his special episode on Cult Movies an was genuinely impressed by the fact Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel really knew their shit”. I stayed on to catch the “Dog of the Week” and was in seventh heaven when they would devote a half hour to “Guilty Pleasures”.
My favorite Ebert books have to be his “Your Movies Sucks” anthologies, where his most vitriolic prose is dished out. You can always tell how passionate a man is by how mean he gets when disappointed. Clearly his approach had an effect on yours truly.
Over the years, I had many encounters with Ebert as I worked in various capacities. By far, my favorite moment came when, as a budding film critic, I attended a conference on criticism and worked up the courage to go talk to him, this time as a colleague.
I was surprised to see him acknowledge me. I’m sure he couldn’t place exactly where he knew me from but it was clear Ebert was one “never to forget a face”.
“This is not our first meeting but I wanted to talk with you about something that I never had a chance to address before: It seems you have written one of my “Guilty pleasures”.”
“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?” he guessed.
“Oh, I love that film but I meant Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens.“
“Oh!” he chuckled “That’s a VERY guilty pleasure indeed! I’m more than happy to talk about Russ but I’ve been sitting up on that stage for the past couple of hours and need to make this screening. But if you’re willing to walk and talk…I just need to go to the bathroom.”
“No prob. I need to head there as well.”
So the next thing I know, I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Ebert staring blankly at a tiled wall and chatting about what makes Russ Meyer a “subversive feminist”. Needless to say that pee break was more informative than any semiology lecture I ever attended.
It is a moment I will cherish forever.