All day Thursday, I wanted to write something about Roger Ebert but it was too difficult, emotionally. Let me try now.
In 1981, I was a kid, and I saw Siskel and Ebert on TV reviewing “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It was the first time I ever saw them. I thought Ebert was a rare, entertaining genius. And I thought, “That's what I want to do, review movies.”
A few years later, I read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and I thought, “That's what I want to do, write gonzo journalism.”
Eventually, I would do neither.
But the works of Ebert and Hunter S. Thompson lighted my path to journalism school, which led to my full and rewarding career.
I don't want to leave out my mother’s influence. She taught me English and literature at a very young age, made me keep a journal, and frequently talked about Faulkner and the methodology of writing — all which brainwashed me into loving the art of writing.
Anyway, Ebert — so on Christmas Eve in 1996, I was feeling incredibly low. I had just got a divorce. My Nana who raised me was fading and she would die a few months later. On top of all that, I had just moved to a new city with a new job in Florida.
All alone and heartbroken on Christmas Eve, I did the only thing I could think of to raise my spirits. I went to the Sun-Times site and did a search for every movie Ebert had given zero stars to.
Oh my god, I laughed and laughed. My favorite line of his ever was in his pan of "Jaws 4:"
“I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn't want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?”
After midnight, I wrote an email to Ebert as a fan, telling him his zero-star reviews comforted me on a tearful night. I went to bed, and I woke up to an email he sent me on Christmas morning, thanking me for reading his reviews and noting how funny it is that critics do their best writing when they're panning.
A decade later, I took a job, reviewing TV shows, at the Chicago Sun-Times. On my first day, someone showed me where my newsroom mailbox was — right next to Ebert's.
A smile was stuck to my face (for an hour?) after I saw our nameplates side by side, “Ebert. Elfman.”
As a hardcore fan of his, I tried not to bother him during my two years in Chicago. What do you say to a person whose very presence leaves you feeling nothing but silent reverence?
I did get to talk to him and his wife briefly at a party once. They were so nice, but I was shell shocked to meet him, so I don’t remember what we said.
Sometime after that, he lost his ability to talk due to cancer complications.
But I saw him again during rounds of layoffs. He and his wife circled the newsroom, giving hugs and putting hands on shoulders. The look on Ebert’s face during layoffs was devastation. He seemed more upset by people losing their jobs than the people who lost their jobs (but they were being stoic).
Truly, he seemed a man of warmth and generosity, all bundled up in the body of an entertaining genius.
And we emailed a few times. I’m sure that even though we were colleagues at the Sun-Times, I just came across as a hopeless Ebert fanatic.
Then after those two years in Chicago, I moved back to Vegas, my spiritual homeland, and tried not to pester Ebert with my lingering fanboy questions. I had so many questions, never asked, never answered.
And now he's gone.
It was bad enough when Hunter S. Thompson died. I was fortunate enough to meet Thompson once, as a waiter in New Orleans. It was lunch shift. He was drinking. He asked me where the bathroom was. I thought that was pretty sweet.
But my few brief moments with Ebert were more gratifying than I can explain. And for him to turn out to be as incredibly feeling in person as he was — even more stunning.
It has been a challenging year for me. In January, my cat of 18 years died. She was my baby. I used to call her “my daughter.” Yeah, I'm that person. When Josie died, I was devastated. I still am, to tell you the truth.
Three days after Josie died, my mom died.
Imagine that further devastation.
And now my spiritual mentor, Roger Ebert, has died.
I don’t know what 2013’s problem is, but enough already.
So Ebert — for decades, he was mentoring me even though he never knew it. He had no idea I scoured his reviews and watched his TV shows as if I were his deconstructing student, or that at the Sun-Times I learned more about his approach to writing.
No one has influenced my writing more, even though I don't think I write a thing like his technical style. Instead, I picked up something far, far more valuable: To write with a bleeding heart. Or more precisely: Not to be afraid of writing with my own bleeding heart. If a mean reader ever gripes that I have a heart, that is his heartless problem, not mine.
If you have read Ebert over the years, you understand that about him. He had a gigantic heart. He cared about living beings and the earth with authentic passion. That’s why some of his reviews sounded angry, not just because some films wasted his time, but because they were not helping the world.
Ebert didn't just want movies to be good, he wanted them to be human and good and genuine. Those traits are what I seek in people and in writing. (My mom, a teacher, rooted those same traits into children.)
Anyway, so it's been a tough year. But at least I have finally found the strength today to say au revoir to Roger Ebert the only way I know how. By writing, and thinking of his sweet heart. We were blessed to have him for as long as we did.