Friday, April 05, 2013

Remembering Roger

In about a year's time, I was able to shake hands with two of my most important creative influences. My encounters with Ray Bradbury and George Lucas in 2007 and 2008 only lasted a few seconds, but meeting them in person added a human element to relationships that would never have felt as genuine otherwise. You spend enough time reading a person's books or watching their movies, you start to feel like you know them. Bradbury and Lucas still wouldn't know me from Adam, but meeting them at least partially validated those relationships.

As of Thursday, I'm never going to have that opportunity with Roger Ebert. After a long bout with cancer that robbed him of his jaw and his ability to speak and eat for the last several years, Ebert finally passed away at the age of 70.

Of those three influences, Ebert is the only one I might be able to consider a colleague. He wrote film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly 50 years, though like most people, I first got to know him as the the tubby Costello to Gene Siskel's Abbott on TV back in the '80s. Sometime between the year I spent as the film critic for my student newspaper in grad school and when I started writing reviews for the Deseret News in the fall of 2010, I discovered his website and have checked in with him regularly ever since.

Often I've clicked over to his site only seconds after submitting a review of my own, curious to know what he thought of a film, wondering if I had completely missed the boat. Which is funny, because I disagree with Ebert's reviews as often as I concur. The deeper truth is that whether I agree with him or not, I admire Roger Ebert primarily as a writer. Most film reviews (including many of my own, unfortunately) come across as formulaic and distant, cold analysis of inanimate celluloid. But Ebert put his heart into his reviews, composing efforts that felt more like personal essays. Instead of write about an obligatory checklist of things that make movies good or bad, he wrote about the experience he had watching a film, and in that sense, he could never be wrong.

In doing so, he tapped into the joy of watching great movies. And more famously, he tapped into the comic rage that can come from being victimized by an unholy pile of garbage. When we cover reviews and evaluations in my English courses, I often have my students read Ebert's review of "Transformers 2," and assure them that it's a lot easier to write a review of a movie you hate than of one you love.

Ebert also had a knack for modern media. Robbed of his speaking voice, and in spite of being in his '60s, Ebert was more than happy to jump headfirst into modern social media outlets like Twitter, and his exploits often landed him in the middle of mini-controversies. I disagree with him on matters of politics even more than I do on films, but I never felt like I had to abandon his writing for it.

Late in January of this year, I started making weekly appearances on the "KJZZ Movie Show" as part of an opening segment roundtable with host Melanie Nelson and Steve Salles, who writes for the Ogden Standard Examiner. It's a long way from "At the Movies" or "Sneak Previews," but it has been a great experience. One I'm sure I never could have had if it wasn't for Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert.

With that in mind, I think it would be fair to give him the last word. So here's a quote that perfectly describes the moviegoing experience, taken, appropriately enough, from his review of "Star Wars:"

"Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them."