Roger Ebert's passing has dredged up a repressed childhood memory that I share with no little embarrassment. Growing up, I fantasized that my daily life was a movie, and that Roger Ebert reviewed it. By which I mean, lying in bed at night, I would assume in my head the voice of "Roger Ebert," who reviewed the events of my day with the same critical eye, but common touch he brought to the reviews I read so eagerly every Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Ebert of my imagination did not dispense advice as Humphrey Bogart did for Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. He functioned in his role as critic, and true to form, he did not give an inch or betray his critical standards. Even in my own fantasy, often was the night that my "Roger" gave me a bad review on par with his later smackdown of North.
Rather than dwell on how psychologically fucked up this sounds, I prefer to think of this as a reflection of the connection I felt to him. I was 11 when he became the Sun-Times' film critic. I literally grew up reading his reviews.
I already loved movies (thanks, Jerry Lewis), but Roger wrote so artfully and accessibly about them as to broaden my cinematic horizons. My introduction to Ingmar Bergman came courtesy of a weekly series he hosted on our local PBS station in the early 70s, years before he was famously teamed with Gene Siskel. (Monika was of special interest because I had done my homework and learned that there was nudity in it. But still, Bergman).
And so it was the honor of a lifetime that last year Roger invited me to join a group of writers, dubbed the Demanders, to contribute reviews of video-on-demand fare to his website. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity and will always treasure encouraging emails he sent.
How generous was that? His award-winning website is prime real estate, and he chose to share it with writers from around the world to offer diverse voices and perspectives and broaden the ongoing, ever-evolving conversation about the world's most popular art form. So in addition to a tirelessly prolific talent and insatiably curious mind, he also nurtured an online community (writers and commenters) as up for intelligent conversation about the movies (and other issues) as he was.
But the loss, I think, is felt more keenly here. Roger was one of us; a Midwesterner, a Chicagoan. It was a tremendous source of pride to watch his (and Gene's) wholly unexpected career trajectory into the most recognized, respected, and popular film critic and the unlikeliest of pop culture icons.
A newspaperman in the old school tradition of The Front Page, he was tough, quick-witted and, unlike our politicians, incorruptible. Surely he must have received offers to leave Chicago for opportunities out west. But he stayed here. His love for his native state was the source of some of the most memorable writing on his online journal; nostalgic reveries on old haunts and autobiographical portraits that evolved into his memoir, Life Itself. But true to his roots, he was down to earth and approachable, a quick responder on those occasions that I sought a quote from him for one story or another.
A city whose name has been sullied by the likes of Capone, Springer and Blagojavech, could not ask for a better, more redemptive ambassador. If it ever came up in conversation that I was from Chicago and that I wrote about movies, the question that invariably followed was, "Do you know Roger Ebert?"
One other story: When I was on the home video beat, I attended a junket in New York for Nobody's Fool. I arrived at the hotel as Roger was checking out (he got first crack at Paul Newman and company). We had never met personally, my life critic and I (and no, I never told him about that). I waited while two passing flight attendants cracked themselves up by calling him "Siskel," and then I congratulated him on the news in that day's Chicago paper I was carrying with me that a section of Erie Street in Chicago would be dedicated "Siskel & Ebert Way."
He asked to see my newspaper. He scanned the story. And then the world's most popular, widely-read and respected film critic beamed.