Thank you, Roger Ebert!! - by JoBlo

It’s hard for me to know where to start with this, so I’ll start from the beginning.

As a teenager, I loved movies. Loved going to the movies, loved watching movies at home, love talking about movies with friends. And yes, if there was one TV show that I would not miss out during those years, it was “At the Movies”, better known around my house as “Siskel & Ebert”. Back then, there was no such thing as the “internet”, and since my local Montreal newspaper film critics were pretty pretentious (for a teenager like me), I always enjoyed watching Siskel & Ebert because I got some cool insight into films that hadn’t come out yet or were just being released. Now despite both men not being in my demographic, they were always able to articulate the good points and bad points about any film, without talking down to their audience. Granted, their “best shows” were probably the ones in which they’d debate a film heavily…but that was also a part of the greatness of their show (I should also mention that their many appearances on "The Tonight Show" were also very fun to watch). It must say something that their show lasted for over 25 years, yet no other film critic show has ever even gotten close!

By 1996, I followed one my of my business teachers’ advice and tried to “do what I love” and started writing film reviews for my M.B.A. newspaper, just for fun. When my fellow students appreciated those reviews, and this thing called the “internet” popped up around that time, I decided to open a website of my own (just for fun, of course), call it JoBlo.com (a “Joe Blow” – your everyday guy point of view), just until I found a “real job” in the “real world”.

In 1999, Roger Ebert’s partner on the show, Gene Siskel, passed away and by then, I had actually conversed with Roger a couple of times via email, just shooting the breeze. Anyone who has ever met him will tell you that Roger was just that sort of fella. He loved talking about movies and was always very approachable and real. He was always very encouraging to me and when I semi-jokingly told him that it would be “cool” if I were his guest co-host one week (at the time, they were going through a variety of different co-hosts), surprised was I that not only did he write me back with a positive response, but he also included his producer’s name and address, and told me to “send in a tape” and that I’d be considered (!!). Blown away was I.

WTF?!? Here I was, some shmuck from Montreal Canada, just a plain ol’ “movie fan” (in  his 20s!) and the great Pulitzer-prize winning Roger Ebert thought that I might be considered for his show?! Unbelievable. I was giddy with excitement and seeing as one of my favorite films of all-time had come out around that time (FIGHT CLUB), I decided to focus my “audition tape” on that film, especially since Ebert himself had semi-dismissed the film in his own review. I’m going to link to my audition tape in this article because maybe it will serve others on how not to audition for a TV show (hehehe), but needless to say, I was just excited to be considered and still have their “rejection letter” in my office.

BTW, a couple of years ago I sent Roger the link to that video and he asked me if he could “Twitter" it out of his account, because it might get our site some “extra hits”. That’s just the kind of man he was. Classy. He also said “...I give you thumbs up on your lighting there.” Must've been those cheesy Halloween pumpkin lights in the background. Doh! Always loved his humor.

By 2004, I was attending the Cannes Film Festival for the first time, all by myself. I knew nothing about film festivals or France, although I did speak French. Knowing that Roger was going to be there, I thought it might be a good way to finally meet him face-to-face, and conduct an interview with him at the same time, since I knew that plenty of folks on our site were also big fans of his. I never expected him to even have the time to read/respond to my email, since I'd heard that he was one of those critics who would see about 3-5 movies/day over there, but as per his usual style, he responded asap and we spend the next few days going back and forth, arranging our meeting.

When we did finally meet at the American Pavillion, Roger showed up with his wife Chaz, who I’d never met before, and was completely laid back, despite my uber-anxiety around him. I could see that he could sense my nervousness and he quickly calmed me down with some nice words about my site and my reviews. That would have been enough for me, of course, but he spent the next 60+ minutes with me, chatting me up about the Festival and answering all of my goofy questions. Thankfully we still have that interview on the site, and you can read it in its entirety RIGHT HERE.

What’s “funny” is that his wife was sitting next to us the whole time, just listening and waiting attentively, but I could sense that after around half an hour, she was getting a little bored, but instead of asking Roger to leave or something along those lines, she simply “excused herself’ which left Roger and I alone for another little while. I was embarrassed but Roger just wanted to talk movies and give this newbie some lifelong advice.

Later on during the Festival, I was invited to some “star-studded” shindig all by my lonesome. I may have even showed up with my back-pack…oy-vey. I remember simply hanging back, just hoping nobody would see me or ask me to leave, until I saw Roger and his wife walking around the party as well. At some point, we walked by each other and despite him engaging others in a conversation, he noticed me from the side of his eye, gave me that “Hey look at you at this fancy party!” look, smiled and after that, a sense of “calm” and acceptance reigned over me during the rest of the festival. If Roger f*ckin’ Ebert thinks I belong at this place, then gosh darnit, so should I! My confidence started to grow.

To this day, I consider our Cannes meeting as one of the coolest things to happen to me via this website.

This picture was Roger's idea. He thought it would look better if we took the pic that looked like "dueling critics". He was right.

By the mid-2000s, Roger had started his fight against cancer and I too started running into health issues of my own. Mine were not as dire as Roger’s, but they were debilitating to the point that I could no longer go to watch movies in movie theaters. By 2006, I was forced to hire someone to replace myself on the site (took me forever to make that decision, as I felt like I was letting everyone down, including myself), despite the fact that I had been the only theatrical reviewer on JoBlo.com from 1998-2006.

DDuring this period, Roger somehow kept in touch with me and would encourage me to keep hanging in there. I repeat…the man who was fighting for his own life…was encouraging me!! How can you not love this great man and spirit? Over those years, I was always inspired to hear those words from him, especially during many of my own hospital trips during which I spend a lot of time by myself in my hospital room, with my laptop beside me. I continually reminded Roger about how influential and important his own fight was to me and many others, but he would never pat himself on the back or anything of the sort. He just kept fighting his own fight privately, encouraging me and keeping his eye on returning to what he loved doing most: watching movies and writing about them.

When his cancer went into remission a few years ago, it was around the same time as my own ailments went into remission, so we communicated about that, and I remember him emailing me cool stories from time to time, and always asking me “How I was doing”. The fact that he actually considered me a peer was already a highlight of my life, but here we were, two fellow film critics, going through real life issues and connecting on that level.

I’m not really sure if any of these stories or words will mean anything to anyone else but me, but I felt like I had to write this up today, especially as his passing has affected me a lot more than I would have imagined. Recently, his life story was bought and announced to be made into a film of its own, but as per usual, when I emailed Roger to offer my congratulations back in September of 2012, he downplayed the whole thing by saying that the film was “not his idea”, but that you “can’t say no to Steve James!”. Always humble.

But you know what the best part is about all these nice things I have to say about Roger? I’m not alone.

Our current theatrical reviewer, Chris Bumbray, met him at TIFF a few years ago and said that he was a “really nice guy, humble and down-to-earth” and hundreds, thousands of others have said the same. Anyone living in Chicago can tell you that he was always seen walking around on the streets and folks would approach him readily all the time, and he was always accepting. We even asked him to film a “goofy skit” with us a few years ago when we were producing the "JoBlo Movie Show" and he was totally into it -- unfortunately, he was going through treatments at the time, so we weren’t able to make it work.

All that to say, I believe that it’s important to mourn and cherish the memory of our loved ones after they pass, but even more importantly, to celebrate the lives and the goodness of those worthy of it, whenever possible, because folks like this don’t come around every day. In fact, I consider myself extremely lucky and blessed to have met Roger Ebert, both on the professional front, as he was always very encouraging and helpful in regards to my career, but even moreso on a personal front, because he provided me with more strength and faith to plow through my own health issues, even as he was fighting his own ailments.

Thank you for everything, Roger.

The movie world already misses your words, but we are lucky enough to still have them with us in our world, which generations on end can continue to read and utilize for their own cinematic educations. Hope you’re sitting around up there, surrounded by Hitchcock, Kubrick and Kurosawa, talking shop and we will absolutely always see, and remember you...at the movies.

Source: JoBlo.com



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