In 1981, in a small apartment in Skokie, Illinois, I sat enthralled,
watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on "Sneak Previews" discuss
the new movie "American Pop", Ralph Bakshi's story of four generations
of a family in the music business. At 13, I was starting to become
more and more of a fan of rock, and I knew I had to go see it. Gene
didn't like the movie at all, but Roger give it a middling thumbs
Even though it was rated R, I managed to get my mom to take me to
see it. I loved it. From that point on, Roger was my man.
This was also around the time that "Friday the 13th" had hit big,
and knock-offs like "My Bloody Valentine" were all over the theaters.
Gene and Roger talked about how horrible these movies were, the
blatant misogyny, and how that all the women were good for was to
get naked and then chopped to pieces. It impressed me that these
guys were using their TV time discuss not only the movies themselves,
but movies as a whole, and their effect on society.
Here's a clip
of Gene and Roger discussing "Silent Night, Deadly Night" that gives
a feel for their zeal.
As the years went by, I followed Gene and Roger whenever I could,
even though I no longer lived in the Chicago area. If they were
on the Tonight Show, my dad would holler to alert me and it would
be a good night. Here's
appearance with Carson, poking fun at each other, discussing
payola in movie criticism, and decrying the slasher movies. In it,
Roger makes the most level-headed declaration against censorship
of garbage: "The movie should be made, it should be shown, and it
should not be attended by anybody."
Roger taught me to deconstruct the movies I saw. Here's an entry
from my (now signed) copy of "Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary":
"Fruit cart!": An expletive used by knowledgeable film buffs during
any chase scene involving a foreign or ethnic locale, reflecting
their certainty that a fruit cart will be overturned during the
chase, and an angry peddler will run into the middle of the street
to shake his fist at the hero's departing vehicle.
It's my favorite entry in a book devoted to poking holes in shoddy
film making. As always, he strikes a balance between enthusiasm
and cynicism. His skewering of the cliche is a plea for creativity
and abandoning lazy filmmaking.
Roger has always fought
for improving the movies.
He's long railed against the dimming of film projectors in the name
of the theaters saving a few bucks. He's encouraged us to not stand
for crying babies, talking filmgoers and substandard popcorn. He
wants us to love the movies as much as he does.
Roger reminds us often of Siskel's rule: "Is this movie more
interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?"
I've appropriated his rule about how long a movie can be, "No good
movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough", into
my advice I give job-seekers
about how long their resumes should be.
Back in 1984, when the violence of "Indiana Jones and the Temple
of Doom" caused an outcry over its PG rating, prompting the MPAA
to add PG-13, Roger and Gene also reminded of us of the need for
an adults-only rating, above R, that wasn't the X applied to hardcore
porn. That we have the rating NC-17 today is due in no small part
Now it's the 21st century. The Internet means that we have dozens
of choices of critics to help us. Sites like
summarize and aggregate dozens of reviews for each film
released. The strong voices of authority like Roger and Gene have
been dispersed. Newspaper circulation has dropped drastically.
So Roger turned to blogging.
Without the constraints of having to fit 600-words in two columns
of the printed page, Roger wrote about whatever struck his fancy,
and he did it well. He's always been a newspaper man at heart, and
his love of writing means he writes a lot. His recent appreciation
of the legacy of Hugh Hefner
runs almost 1900 words, and includes relevant photos and YouTube
clips. He comments on the comments left on the blog entries. He
understands the medium and he uses it well.
What does he write about? He writes about what he loves! He loves
the movies. He loves food.
He loves women
and sex and eroticism, without apology. He loves life, and he
thinking about life. It's
a joy to read about what brings Roger joy.
You'll note I keep calling him "Roger", like he's a friend of mine,
someone I've known for years, and in a way he is, even though I'd
never met him in person until a few days ago. The Internet and
email and his blog have allowed him to keep in touch with all of
us. Roger's just a guy like the rest of us. Sure, he hangs out
with A-list movie stars and he's
buds with Martin Scorcese,
but he knows he's just a guy from Urbana, Illinois.
When I told my aunt Gayle
McKay that I was going to Roger's signing the other night, she
I wish he would write a book about life.
Would you tell him that? He is so profound, so clear and true.
That is what I love most about him. I love his blog. I don't care
a whole lot about movies one way or another. But his wisdom should
be shared with the world.
I, too, wish he'd write that book, but
I also know he's doing what he can to share that wisdom every day
with us through his writing.
The 21st century also brought Roger his cancer, and the ravages it's
had on his body. He had his lower jaw and tongue removed a few
years ago. I can't imagine what that would be like, to live a life
without food, without talking, without kissing my loved ones. He's
written about it, of course, but nowhere is there a shred of anger,
one iota of self-pity. This is what his life is, and he keeps
I noticed something funny as I wrote this. It wasn't until the
past few days that I realized the impact Roger has had in my life.
I didn't go to bed at night listening to his reviews, like I listened to
George Carlin's comedy albums on the record player in my room, drifting off to sleep laughing
I don't sing his reviews, and teach them
to my daughter, like I do with Johnny Cash's songs. And yet as
I've been writing this article, I keep remembering ways in which
Roger's influenced my life. All three of these men lived their
lives out loud, living their principles, never failing to stand for
what they believed in. We should all aspire to be as strong as any
I failed to let Carlin and Cash know what they meant to me, to tell
them how they've inspired me, and to thank them for the legacy
they've left behind, both in me and the world itself. I won't make
that mistake here.
Thank you, Roger.