Apr. 5th, 2013

meirwen_1988: (table tag)
Yesterday, while we were having dinner, the Duchezz looked over at me and said, "Who was the film guy who died today?"

I looked up from my plate, and said "Roger" and then my throat closed up, and my eyes filled, and I rasped out "Ebert."

Her eyes got big and round, and she started to apologize for asking. "I didn't know it would make you...oh, I'm sorry."

How could she have known?

I don't generally go to pieces when a celebrity dies. Oh, there is a sense of loss--of books that will never be written, performances I'll never see, music I'll never hear. And I fully expect to be a watery mess when the last of the Gibb brothers dies, though I got through the first three with barely a sniffle.

So why the pain, the tears, because a pudgy, opinionated critic from Chicago lost with dignity the fight for life he'd waged with courage and openness over the last decade? How could she have known.

I didn't.

But when I saw on my Twitter feed yesterday that he was gone, I could barely move. When friends posted something totally clueless as a comment on my FB post about it I had to stifle the urge to ban them from my feed. My reaction was visceral and passionate.

So, why?

Because he is why I do what I do.

Growing up, we were, not to put too fine a point on it, poor. Even with Daddy's job at General Electric, and the very generous medical benefits package all the union guys got, my mother and brother's health issues kept us with disposable income below the poverty line. Add to that my father's alcoholism, and both parents' nicotine addictions, and money was very tight. Plus we lived out in the middle of the country, only Daddy drove, and once he'd made the hour commute home the last thing he wanted was to take anyone anywhere except maybe a grocery store to get something for dinner (which is why dinner usually went on the table sometime around 8:30 at night). Going to the movies didn't happen.

But we watched movies on television a lot. Back in those days the networks usually had a big movie night once a week. And the local stations usually filled up the weekends with movies. And I watched them all. Everything from the B westerns and sci-fi (Oh, I still love Them!) and cheesy Steve Reeves Hercules movies with the bad dubbing to really good films, like Laura and How Green Was My Valley and The Shape of Things to Come and The Best Years of Our Lives. At night we'd watch the "big" films, like A Lion in Winter, and The Group, and Lawrence of Arabia and Anne of a Thousand Days. In black and white. With commercials. The handful of movies I saw in a theatre before the age of 16 doesn't even take two hands to count. But I loved movies. So did my parents, I think, but the surprising one was my dad.

There were some movies he wouldn't watch because of his PTSD from World War II. Anything set in the European Theatre of action was off limits. And he wasn't wild about romantic comedies (I inherited that one). Otherwise, he'd watch. But his taste was excellent. He never forgave the academy for giving the Oscar for Best Picture to Around the World in 80 Days rather than to Picnic. He was totally blown away by Duel when it premiered on the ABC Tuesday Night Movie (the series which made me believe that "made for television" films could be every bit as good as a theatrical release), and decided he'd keep track of the then-unknown director to see what else he could do. Some kid named Spielberg. Because of that, when I was in college he and my mother went to the movies (something I'd never known them to do in my entire live) to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind--and he never got over how wonderful he thought it was. He took me to see Blazing Saddles because "Mel Brooks is a genius." For my very straightlaced father, sitting next to his daughter through of the Madeline Khan scenes was not comfortable, but we survived. And it's still one of my favorite memories.

So what does any of this have to do with Roger Ebert?

I was a consumer of films. Good films, bad films, with a little nudging from my dad to respect the really fine ones.

And then along came Sneak Previews and my world changed. My then lover and I would lay in bed on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee, eating bagels, reading comic books, and watching the local PBS station. First came Dr. Who, which was lovely, if sureal to wake up to, and then Sneak Previews came on. Ed loved movies, so we would watch, and argue with the television, and make mental notes to see, or not see, something they'd reviewed. Then we'd get up and head to the campus to grade papers, or go to the library, because, well, that's what one does in grad school. But the show always stuck with me during the day.

Truth to be told, I always "liked" Gene more. I found Roger harsh, argumentative, and not very "nice." But the way he, even more than Gene, talked about movies made a world open up to me that I'd never known existed. He dug into films with passion (because he loved them) and intellect. He could break them down into their pieces to see how they all came together, but more how the pieces worked on those of us in the seats, and how the choices the filmmakers made could triumph or wreck havoc. He treated films with great seriousness, but was never stuffy, but more, he and Gene treated those of us who watch films as important, and deserving of a good experience, and smart. I started to ask of movies the same questions I was supposed to be asking about the books I was studying as an English Lit grad student--and found the answers as complex, and the texts as rewarding. When I started work on my Ph.D. I found a way to make movies as important in my projects and papers as the written literature, and my dissertation proposal was about how texts metamorphose in adaptation, with the intention of digging into the philosophical questions of the role of medium and story and whether even an entirely faithful adaptation is in fact the same story since our aesthetic response is so very different depending on the medium through which we receive it. Heady stuff. And in the film classes I took, from truly good professors, and the critics I read (all the big ones, and then some), the voice I heard in my head was Roger Ebert's. Pushing me to dig deeper, ask harder questions, because I loved movies, and they were worth all that time and energy.

So now, I teach film. Because of him I tell my students with confidence that it's alright to love a popcorn film. To not enjoy an "important" film. But that they have to know why they are reacting the way they are. They have to respect the work that went into even the worst movie, and that, ultimately, movies are for us. Because of Roger Ebert.


Roger Ebert died yesterday. I never sent him a fan letter. Never told him he was the mentor of who I became as a thinker about this wonderful art of the moving image. But he is.

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February 2015

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