Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Roger & Us

Roger Ebert in Chicago in 1975 after winning the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  Bettmann/Corbis

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Call me Roger," he once wrote. 

I had called him Mr. Ebert in emails and in person.  I soon stopped.  You could call Roger Ebert Mr. Chicago.  Roger was an institution, a pillar of The Windy City.  A Pulitzer Prize winner at the Chicago Sun-Times.  The Second City had America's preeminent film critic and later the world's most popular film critic thanks to the age of Twitter.  Roger, by the way, was a Chicago Cubs baseball fan.

I'm sorry about that last one, Roger.  Too bad your Cubbies didn't win a World Series while you were here.

While Roger was here a lot of people loved and appreciated his attitude and his heart. 

What I appreciated most about Roger was his generosity, encouragement and kindness.  Roger would always sign his emails with, "R".  An affectionate touch, something you might see in a Hitchcock movie. 

For me R meant "regular."  Roger was a regular guy.  Regular.  Like you and me. 

Roger Ebert was a massive influence on the way I saw and critiqued movies.  In a cynical world Roger believed in movies and people, everyday people, beyond the film world.  Roger saw the future of film criticism as a bright inclusive world of learned, diverse, developing voices: movie lovers, cineastes and moviegoers. 

Roger's enthusiasm for life and the movies was boundless.  He had a genuine fervor for life that was unquenchable.  His love for the movies was unimpeachable. 

Roger's evocative writing and analysis of film was unrivaled.  No one before or since has described or discussed a movie the way Roger did.  When I read Roger's reviews I felt his written word float into my mind.  He painted such vivid, elegant pictures with his eloquent words.  Roger illuminated my view of films with his insights better than anyone could.  He was a storyteller. 

Roger gave a poignant and perceptive view of the kaleidoscopic world of movies.  He offered us a unique and intimate way of thinking about them, of viewing them, seeing them and feeling them.  Through his prolific, excellent writing Roger bridged any conceivable gap between the big screen experience, the audience and its understanding of the way movies worked.

At times when I read Roger's reviews I felt as if he was sitting next to me in a movie theater watching the very film he was reviewing.  That was the magic Roger conveyed in his words.  I believe Roger, who was both a professor and student of cinema, would have been a fine film director.

Directors were a group Roger aided.  Michael Moore, Julie Dash, Philip Kaufman, Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Allison Anders, Kasi Lemmons, Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh were just a few of the directors whose careers benefitted from Roger's praise and support.  Many of these names are of the independent filmmaking discipline.  Roger went to bat for independent cinema and brought international films into the American mainstream discourse each week.

Roger respected the intelligence of his vast audience.  He never took you for granted.  He was sensitive.  Roger truly saw people.  His reviews reflected that.  Roger had a worldview, a global perspective of people and of cinema.

Roger invited me into his home.  He invited all of us into his home, his world and his life as much as we invited him into our homes and our moviegoing lives on a weekly basis.  In that way Roger belonged to the world.

Speaking of the world, Roger might have departed it a little earlier if not for his wife Chaz.  Chaz was Roger's greatest love, champion and companion.  Chaz kept Roger's flame burning.  When Roger's world may have gone grim, Chaz illuminated it with positivity, strength, courage and love.  When Roger had doubts, or saw only the end, Chaz saw hope and a world beyond finality. 

I was one of many who knew them fairly well, albeit relatively briefly.

Roger and Chaz Ebert during the S.F. Film Society tribute to Roger in San Francisco in 2010.  Omar P.L. Moore

Roger wasn't just an excellent film critic.  Roger was a champion of life and people.  Roger championed many, including me.  Roger could easily have taken his 1975 Pulitzer Prize and isolated himself in an elitist tower for decades to come.

Instead, Roger led with his heart.

Roger had a purpose and fulfillment far beyond self.  He indulged his passion of cinema but didn't isolate himself in it or alienate his readers.  Roger indulged us.  He touched and inspired millions of us.  Roger helped thousands of us, a small fraction of whom he knew personally and an untold number he will never know.  He used his platform to help others rather than enrich himself.  Roger shared his passions with millions of us.  He was a sketch artist, cartoonist, caption-maker, philosopher. 

I remember when my camera was somehow not getting the picture I wanted to provide Roger, he would say, "I know how to take some good pictures.  Next time when you come to Chicago I will take some of you." 

He was a very good photographer and videographer.

Roger was a man of the world.  He had a wicked and cheeky sense of humor.

You were such a kind person, Roger.  You gave so much to all of us. 

With Roger it was about helping others and finding the next group of critics to carry the torch, something he took seriously.  Roger loved criticism as its own institution.  Where he saw potential he gladly encouraged it.  Roger wasn't threatened by emerging new talent.  Roger applauded and saluted it.  He gave tips to all of us, free of charge.  All of us: young and old, black, white, Asian, Latino, man and woman. 

Roger was an advocate.  He went to bat for you.  Roger went out of his way to do things for complete strangers that few in the critic world would dream of doing today.  Roger did all of this with pure love.  He never asked for anything in return.  Roger was an extraordinary man.  His essence was pure.  His heart was real.  He was a motivator and a teacher.

You know something?  Roger was a superb editor, too.  He could shape and cut words with all the incisiveness of Errol Flynn's swashbuckling. 

When Roger bumped into something called Twitter he used his power to reach and promote others, and to global effect.  Roger's tweets had ratings.  Roger's retweets meant an instant online earthquake was coming your way if you were fortunate enough to be its recipient.  Roger could have a Richter scale effect on your website, blog or Twitter following in only one direction: up.  That happened several times for me and many others.  When you saw the words "101 new Interactions" on your Twitter feed it wasn't Dalmatians.  You knew it was Roger.

Roger had immense courage.  The way he lived his life exemplified that.  Roger was an open book to the world.  None of his publicized ups or downs was in service of a reality show.  Roger showed us all a way to live and be at peace with ourselves even in the toughest of times.  He believed that putting a smile on your face or on the face of another was the greatest yet simplest gift in life.  This was the grace of the man. 

Roger's courage was an example to us all.  He was as fearless as he was gentle.

Roger did so much for me.  I am forever grateful to Roger for putting me on the map and giving me a moment in the sun.  Roger didn't have to do that but he did.  Roger believed strongly in diversifying film criticism by both sex and race, and he did it.  Roger supported black film enthusiastically.  He spoke openly on race and racism.  At Sundance in 2002 Roger spoke of Asian-Americans being able to tell their own stories on their own terms (Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow") without white paternalistic hectoring. 

Roger brought film critics from other countries under his wing.  I wouldn't have met South Korean critic Seongyong Cho or Michael Mirasol (Philippines) or Ali Arikan (Turkey) or Grace Wang (Canada) or Wael Khairy (Egypt) or Gerardo Valero (Mexico) if not for Roger.  I got to meet critics (Omer Mozaffar) with the same name.  I got to meet future Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris.  The encyclopedic cinema brilliance of Elvis Mitchell.  The resonance of Nell Minow.  I am glad I met them all.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in the late 1970s.  Victor Skrebneski

r wanted us all to be better angels, better writers and better people.  He nourished us with all the goodness and compassion in his huge heart. 

He opened a lot of doors for so many.

Sometimes when Roger came into a room he would point at me.  His eyes would widen with approval.  He'd smile and give me his trademark thumbs up.

Someone else might have given me the middle finger.

In 2010 during preparation for a segment on Roger's PBS television show I thanked him effusively and relentlessly.  I often did.  Roger would give me a "palms down" motion as if to say, "easy cowboy, bring it down, son."

After Roger sent one-too-many palm gestures my way he wrote something on a piece of paper and showed it to me: DON'T THANK ME IF I COULD TALK I WOULD HAVE YOUR JOB.  He was right.  That written note was typical of Roger's refreshing candor and honesty.  He never failed to speak the truth as he saw it, even in lighthearted moments.

I first communicated with Roger in 2005.  In February of that year I wrote a tribute to the legendary actor Ossie Davis, who had just passed away.  I obtained Roger's email address from a blast list which hadn't blind cc'd the hundreds of film critics' email addresses on it.  I sent my tribute.  To my utter surprise just minutes later Roger responded.  "This is a very moving, touching and heartfelt tribute," he wrote.

Never mind what Roger said in that email, that I saw "Roger Ebert" in my inbox made my day.  "Roger Ebert emailed me!", I once telephoned my parents to say.  "He did?", my mother said.  "That's good," she added.  "That's very nice," my dad said.  "Maybe you could write for him."  That was 2005.  My computer crashed a year later.  I lost Roger's email address.  Years later Roger would find me and invite me to write for him and contribute to his TV show.

Roger's instincts about people were uncanny.  Roger had a prescient ability to predict future trends like the streaming of films. 

Roger brought people together.  People who might otherwise walk on by would now be in the same room, conversing, learning, laughing and growing, together, thanks to Roger.

There was no hierarchy with Roger.  He treated everyone as equals with each other and equals with him.  Roger never condescended to you.  Not in emails.  Not in person.  Not in his film reviews.  Roger painted his knowledgeable view of cinema with clarity, succinctness and feeling.  Roger brought you into his world, and included the globe in his world: experts, neophytes and dissenters all.  He gave so many their time in the sun.

There are very few film critics like that these days who encourage others in their field.  Competition is more intense now.  Far less trust.  More politics.  And more backbiting and backstabbing.  I believe Roger was the last one, the last great critic, from a bygone age.  Roger was one of a kind.  He reshaped and expanded film criticism and made it accessible for all, and for successive generations.  He unshackled the chains and stodginess that is sometimes associated with film criticism for some.

Roger blew off the cobwebs.  Roger shone a light.  That was his agenda.

Filmmakers Terry Zwigoff, Jason Reitman, Philip Kaufman and Errol Morris flank Roger Ebert in San Francisco in 2010.  Omar P.L. Moore

As technology and media -- social media -- evolved, Roger became even more generous, sharing his gifts and discoveries with the world, and instantly.  He remained current, concise and clear. 

Like a fine wine Roger got better.  Sharper.  Purer.

Roger had a spiritual depth and breadth.  He reached us beyond the written word or the television screen.  He touched our hearts.  He inspired us.  I loved him as a fellow human being.  My memories of Roger are precious.  I'll never forget him.  How could anyone?

Roger was an intelligent, priceless being.  I miss him dearly.

I know Roger would have edited the living daylights out of this tribute.  "This is way too long," I can hear him saying right now.  "Be concise.  Easy on the mustard.  Too much hot dogging."

I don't even know if Roger ever really liked mustard or hot dogs.

I do know this: Roger was friendly.  He was my friend.  He was your friend.  He was our friend.

Kim Morgan, Christy Lemire, Elvis Mitchell and myself saluting Roger Ebert in 2010.  Tribeca Labs

Roger allowed you to challenge him.  Roger sure challenged you.  I can happily say that he pushed me hard when I worked with him on his PBS television show.  He told me off.  He kicked my ass.  "You're writing a student thesis, which is all well and good, but it won't work for television," he once replied in an email regarding a script I was was writing for the show.  "Write for screen," he advised.  That was one of many pieces of advice he gave me.  It was valuable advice.  I grew from it.

What I loved is that you always knew where you stood with Roger.  I admired and respected him greatly, especially for that fact.  Roger was true.  He wouldn't shine you on.  He would tell you when he liked something you did.  And tell you when he did not.  That is a true teacher.  Roger wanted you to succeed.

Roger is a young man.  He always was.  He lived as a young man.  He was never old.  Youth was forever in his heart.  Honesty was in his soul.  He was only 70.  That is young.  Yet Roger had such an extraordinarily rich and full life.

Roger is no longer suffering.  He is at peace.  Something tells me that Roger has his vocal chords back.  He's up in the blue yonder right now, probably trading barbs and sparring with his friend Gene Siskel.  I bet he's using lots of F-bombs during their conversations about movies.  There's surely no editing in heaven.  CITIZEN KANE will be on an endless loop as will CASABLANCA.  Roger will advise Gene to DO THE RIGHT THING and agree with Roger about some movies they previously disagreed on.  Both of them loved Spike Lee's film. 

Maybe that is what heaven's balcony looks like.

One of the best ways to honor Roger is to carry forth his selfless tradition not only in his name but more importantly in our own.  Share, discuss, include.  Let's keep bringing forth the next talented film critics.  Film criticism is far from dead.  It's about all of us.  Roger recognized that.  He lived that.  He personified that.

Roger, dear fellow, I hope you are resting well.  Something tells me that you are watching another fine film right now, sitting awake in the dark of a celestial screening room.

Omar P.L. Moore

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