Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Roger Ebert, And My Lost Film Journal---A Story of Reinvention

Today on our Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ, Eight Forty-Eight featured an interview with Canadian journalist Chris Jones, who just published a profile of Chicago's own film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert has written reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1968, and pioneered the Television Movie-Critic format with crosstown colleague and rival Gene Siskel in "At The Movies"/"Siskel and Ebert".

This is a brief but essential interview, and the Esquire article is required reading for any film-lover, especially if you have followed Ebert's career in Chicago or on the National stage through his TV appearances and numerous books.

Ebert has suffered the effects of cancer, and the near-fatal operations he endured to remove his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw.  He can no longer speak, eat or drink, but his "voice" has not been silenced.  Roger still writes, and watches and reviews movies. He has developed various methods of sign language and technology-aided communication.

I agonized when I saw a current photo of Ebert used in the Esquire article.  The ravages of his illness and "treatments" have rendered him so strange to my image of him as a witty, often contentious, always enthusiastic proponent of the movies, that I actually denied that it was him, as though I were in the first angry stages of mourning. 

I grew up in Chicago and followed both Siskel and Ebert in the Tribune and Sun-Times since childhood (until Siskel's untimely death on February 20, 1999).  Since we subscribed to Tribune delivery, I soon became a proponent of Siskel, and thought of Ebert as the "other" home team, the way a Cub fan regards a Sox fan.  I was less familiar with Ebert at first, but soon payed closer attention to him as I read more, and as I watched a local PBS series, hosted by Ebert, on the movies of Ingmar Bergman.

By the time their TV show aired, they were well-known Chicago celebrities on the brink of national stardom.  I still recall Siskel's walrus-mustache (a '70's relic) and Ebert's portly figure, each occupying a seat in the theater balcony, screening clips, and squaring off on the latest releases, often arguing bitterly, but just as often speaking from the same side of the aisle.  If they liked a film it was regarded as a must-see; if they both hated a film (I remember a notoriously venomous review of "I Spit on Your Grave") it was universally reviled.

Ebert's recent story inspired me to remember an anecdote from my early days as a budding film critic.

I was in what used to be called Junior High School, barely twelve years old, and my passion for the movies was all-consuming.  My heroes did not spar on playing fields, but stared in wonder (or skepticism) at lighted screens, and did their battles on typewriters in newspaper offices.  Siskel and Ebert were my immediate role models.

I kept a notebook, spiral, with a blue cover, of reviews of every movie I saw, at a theater, on television, or in English class.  I never missed a review.  I tried to sound like whomever critic I had just finished reading, and emulated words, phrases, sarcasm, and hyperbole. I turned this notebook in to my teacher every Friday for extra writing credit.  I always got helpful feedback on my word choices, or awkward phrases, and loved the praise I might receive for a well-crafted, nicely built review.

I wanted to do this for a living, some day.  I wanted to be, if not a supreme filmmaker, then a renowned critic.

One Monday, after having written almost 100 reviews that year, my teacher approached me quietly and told me he lost my notebook..looked everywhere....and apologized once, and started the day's class.  I never saw my old reviews again, nor did I ever hear any other explanation for the loss, or any attempts to locate the notebook.

While I continued on my soaring love for the movies, I stopped writing as conscientiously, as passionately, as regularly as before.  Call it discouragement,shock, resentment, laziness.....I let it slip by.

Now, as I have begun to publicly offer my reviews on these pages, and receive kind and helpful feedback from my readers, I wonder if I am re-discovering something true, doing what I was meant to do, reinventing something that was half-invented and abandoned. 

My relationship to Ebert as a reader and a fan can be described as one of angry love.  I respected his writing so much that I resented how often I disagreed with him. I  disliked his wrong-headed opinions, his prejudices, and his influence. I might have identified with him more than other critics, as I could see myself living his career.  I also loved him for his wit and style and focus, and his utter joy at doing what I also loved to do...see and write about the movies.. The love  triumphed...I daydreamed that I was his surrogate Siskel. 

Roger accepts that his life is precarious, and is choosing to invent a new universe for himself to overcome his bleak physical prognosis. I am at a crossroads, and am attempting to create a new life while not abandoning a good foundation.  While the scope of our losses cannot be compared, both affected our  lives on some level.  Ebert is taking his losses in stride and continuing to do what he loves.  I have made peace with my never-to-be-found writing of my youth, and am discovering, in earnest, what I love now.

A story of reinvention, inspired by two guys, boyhood heroes of mine, who duked it out At the Movies.


  1. Great post Tom!

    I share your heartbreak at losing your journal. I had a similar thing happen to a string book I kept when I wrote for the college newspaper. So sad that your teacher didn't understand how significant it was to you.

    I grew up watching "At The Movies" and was so impressed with the way both of them could dissect a movie and how well they expressed the many positives or negatives of a film. I generally sided with Siskel moreso than Ebert though both were very movie savvy and quite entertaining to watch...especially when they disagreed on a film. It's so sad to see Roger in his current state. He is a brilliant critic and deserves all the praise and accolades he's received.

    As for you, sir, when can we expect to see your byline in the Trib or Sun-Times? You got the goods, my friend! Your reviews are evidence of that!

  2. I knew Uncle Roger had lost his jaw to cancer, but the reality didn't sink in until I saw that picture. I never felt such a strange combination of pity, sadness, yet relief. Sad that he had to suffer so much, relieved that he is still alive and fighting.

    I know all too well the feeling of discouragement. If you would have asked me 10 years ago at age 20, what I'd be doing now, I would have said a filmmaker. I really did think I'd have 4 or 5 movies under my belt by now. Alas, it just wasn't meant to be.