Posted by: thewearyprofessor | April 5, 2013

Roger – A Personal Remembrance

It’s sad, but future generations will never be able to understand the effect Roger Ebert had on our lives. Of those aware enough at the time to care about film, who didn’t watch his reviews in the late 1970s and 1980s? Who didn’t know that “Two Thumbs Up” referred to favorable reviews in stereo by Roger and his partner/antagonist Gene Siskel? Nowadays, who didn’t meet Roger on the web anytime they looked for provocative and intelligent discourse? His presence on Twitter was ubiquitous. If he wasn’t tweeting, others were constantly re-tweeting him or linking his blog posts. The blog posts themselves were entertaining and enlightening not just because of what Roger said, which was invariably worth reading, but also because he would attract amazingly literate people to comment. Now Roger, that bespeckled bee buzzing around our internet lives, is stilled. That guy from our shared past that somehow metamorphosed into our frequent net companion is now gone—although who can’t still hear his voice in their heads?

Personally, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the death of Roger Ebert. After reading and watching his work for years, I contacted him in 2005 to correct something in one of his reviews. He ended up printing my letter in his Movie Answer Man column and in his annual book the following year. More importantly, this led to a series of personal email exchanges that I will always treasure.

Here is the first exchange, from 12/25/2005:

Q. You write that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis “hated each others’ fantasy worlds.” While you are correct in saying J. R. R. Tolkien disliked elements of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis was most appreciative and enthusiastic of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He wrote several reviews and essays attesting to this fact and current editions of Tolkien’s work even boast the famous Lewis quote “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron” as part of their back jacket copy.

Frank Gruber, Adjunct Professor of Literature and Composition, Bergen Community College, Paramus, NJ

A. Many other readers supplied similar information, including Kevin Bush of West Palm Beach, FL, who wrote: “In fact, Lewis probably overpraised Tolkien. I remember one book review where he favorably compared Lord of the Rings to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.”

My correspondents were quite correct. Lewis did not hate LOTR, and I have corrected the online review. My information came from a British reference book named The Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, edited by Peter Parker. It reads bluntly: “Lewis and Tolkien, despite their friendship, despised each other’s writings for children.” In answer to your next question, yes, they considered LOTR and Narnia to be writings for children.

This led to another volley, where I quoted material from Tolkien’s own letters that indicated Lord of the Rings was not intended for children, unlike The Hobbit. I also questioned the wisdom of using a reference work by someone better known for his web-slinging than his research. Roger conceded my point. Through the years we exchanged short emails on topics from 9/11 and Hollywood to aspect ratio presentation on home video. I also called him on a minor error in his audio commentary on my beloved Citizen Kane. Sometimes he never answered–he was a busy man–but when he did it was always a thrill to see replies from his distinctively simple personal email address and the sender name Roger Ebert.

During the illness that eventually cost him his lower jaw and the ability to speak, I offered to lighten his load by doing some unpaid research. He thanked me for my incredible generosity and admitted he might take me up on it at some point. What generosity? As I bluntly told him, I would get the better end of the deal. I would be able to brag to my students that I knew and had worked with the great Roger Ebert.Ebert

Sadly, the next couple of years were largely consumed by his illness. When he returned, tentatively, to reviewing and writing I sent him some encouragement, but never renewed my offer. We had some minor exchanges via his blog and he took a look at mine after I sent him the link, but I never received another of those memorable e-mails. He didn’t need any help from me or anybody else. He was blossoming in ways unimaginable. Far from being a man without a voice, he was a man with a louder and arguably stronger new voice. He was suddenly thriving, at the height of his considerable comfort and dexterity with the written word–a prolific mind unleashed. His existence became some incredible mix of Stephen Hawking, Gene Siskel, E.B. White and S.J. Perelman. His life and talent were our wonderful gift.

Roger’s premature death this week at age 70 hit me hard. Like he did with so many others, he had touched me personally. His death is not only a loss to our literate world, but the loss of a distant friend–a guiding voice making sense of some of this madness we live in has been stilled.

I’m going to re-listen to his Citizen Kane audio commentary in his honor. I’m not even going to nitpick his single, minor, and altogether forgivable error. There is no need for that now. As someone named Sam Grittner said on Twitter yesterday, in Roger’s case R.I.P. should now stand for Review In Peace.

That’s all there is to say. The balcony, of course, is now closed–but the occupant will not be forgotten.

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