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 up.
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 a typical 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 to them.
Now it's the 21st century. The Internet means that we have dozens of choices of critics to help us. Sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes 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 loves 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 wrote me:
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 moving forward.
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 of them.
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.