Friday, April 5, 2013


A few years ago I was at the Sundance Film Festival. It was the middle of the week, early in the day and I was making my way into the Holiday Village Theaters, which had become basically a home base for all press screenings. I had gotten press credentials by faking my way through it, pretending that Grudge City Activities was a legit website that published movie reviews – something we had never done a single time. There were so many people trying to get press badges that they didn’t have time to check every little thing. My name was still in the system from the year before, when I legitimately covered the festival for Red Pulse Magazine and the U of U. I didn’t think I had a shot, but much to my surprise, they emailed me back with a green light.

Since I didn’t have any actual deadlines to follow, I was pretty much free to go at my own pace and wander through the press screenings, catching only movies that I wanted to see. I showed up early one morning to see RESTREPO, which started shortly after 8 am. A few hours later, I hit another screening, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was. I want to say it was the Pat Tillman documentary, but I’m not sure. All I remember is what happened right before the movie started.

I was sitting in an aisle seat, near the front of the theater. It was a press and industry screening, so the only famous people to attend weren’t even famous. They were film writers that I knew by name and reputation from reading their stuff on various blogs and film sites. No one famous ever came to them, so there was never any fanfare. Press screenings are for critics that wanted to see as many movies as possible and write as much as they possibly can. Or, it’s for pretend film writers that fake their way into getting credentials so they can see shit they want to see and not have to pay for it – like I did.

As I sat in my seat, watching the press file in, I saw someone I recognized and recognized immediately.

It was Roger Ebert.

This was long after cancer had ravaged his health and taken away his jaw. But there he was. He was standing with his wife, Chaz, looking for a place to sit down and see the movie. There were a couple of seats open in the row behind me, and everyone immediately moved down so that Ebert and his wife could take the two seats on the aisle. He was treated like royalty by everyone that saw him. People would walk by, say hello and continue to their seat. Everyone had a smile on their face, even though he wasn’t able to say anything, since losing his jaw took away his ability to speak. But he still nodded and acknowledged each and every person as they said hello.

Then the lights went down and he went to work.

I kept turning around ever so slightly, looking over my shoulder so I could watch him write. I’m not the kind of guy that takes notes in movies, but Ebert was letting it fly. The pages of his notepad were always turning and his pen almost never stopped moving. I wanted so badly to see what was on those pages, but I settled for catching a peek out of the corner of my eye every few minutes.

I can’t say that I agreed with the man 100% of the time and maybe not even 50% of the time. But whether I agreed with him or not, I still admired the hell out of the guy. I watched AT THE MOVIES when I was little, always trying to figure out what time it had been moved to by checking the TV Week that came with the Sunday paper. Sometimes I'd have to stay up way later than I was allowed, but it was worth it. He and Gene Siskel taught me how to love the art of film. You can make an argument that he killed legit film criticism by reducing every review to a simple “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” but you’d be wrong.

He did that for the benefit of TV, because that’s what you had to do when you were on TV. You have to dumb it down and make it simple and accessible for the millions of people that just want to know if a movie is good or bad. For a long time, I thought he was just a guy on TV – the fat, nerdy guy with glasses that argued about movies with his buddy. When I got older and was finally able to discover that he wrote great columns and books about movies, I started paying a little bit more attention to him.

Roger Ebert taught me how to review things objectively – whether it was comics, movies, albums, bands shows or books. He taught me how to write about what I love and write about what I hate, but always doing so in a way that’s not disrespectful to the person that created it. He knew his words had power and he knew how to use that power for good. He knew what his reputation was and he knew that he couldn’t abuse it. He knew how lucky he was to have a job in which he got paid to write about something he loved. He never once took that for granted.

I’ve been paid actual money to write about almost everything I’ve ever loved and I can safely say that I owe a lot of it to Roger Ebert.

On Tuesday, he posted his “Leave of Presence” article, in which he talked about slowing down a bit, stepping away and looking at things from a new angle. He revealed that he had been dealing with cancer again, but was in high spirits. I didn’t pay much attention to that part. I figured he’d beaten cancer three or four times already, he could do it again. He had so much planned for the next little while, that I was just certain that he’d do all of them and then some. I figured that I'd always run across something he wrote, some way or another for at least a few more years.

Two days later, as I wrote about a construction company in Texas, I read the news that he’d passed away. It was a weird feeling. I never officially met the man, but it was like I’d known him since I was little. I’d grown up with him, tracked his career and watched his shows. I'd also followed his long battle with a disease that he’d overcome so many times, but fell one battle short.

Ebert’s gone now, but he influenced, inspired and showed an entire generation of people that loving movies could be a job as long as you took it seriously and did it well. I’ll always think back to that January morning a few years ago when I had the pleasure of sitting next to him while he did what he loved.

When the movie ended, I stood up, put on my coat and grabbed my bag. Ebert was still writing, because that’s what he did. Writers write and Ebert never stopped.

"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

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