Roger and Me

Back in high school — a very long time ago indeed — I fancied myself a critic.  I wrote for the high school newspaper, and like to think I was pretty good.  I wrote mostly album reviews but did the occasional movie. Many of the music reviews I did were of metal bands I loved at that time, which was to the chagrin of (some of) my fellow journalists, who did not want to see our publication turn into some junior version of Kerrang or Circus magazine.  Or maybe they were just jerks.  Who knows.

In my senior year, we had an opportunity to send two people to Chicago to attend a press junket and private screening of a new movie called Sixteen Candles.  Our journalism class was given the assignment:  We would watch a movie in class, and everyone would write a movie review.  Whoever had the best-written review would win and get to go to Chicago with our teacher, Mrs. O.   The movie we reviewed was Absence of Malice, which starred Paul Newman and Sally Field.  The reviews were judged by three teachers in the English department, and it came down to two of us inked-stained wretches, so I was told.  I won.

In addition to winning the Big Prize, I won lots of teasing and derision from my school mates, who repeatedly noted I would get to spend a lovely weekend in Chicago with MY TEACHER.  No worries, Mrs. O and I got along fine, and it was only one night away from home.

So we went to Chicago.  We checked into a nice hotel.  At 17 years old, I think it may have been the first time I ever had my own hotel room. It was novel and exciting.  At the junket we were to meet the movie’s director — the now-late John Hughes — who was making his directorial debut after much success as a writer of such movies as National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom.  We would also meet two of the movie’s stars – Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.

I have only a vague memory of the junket.  I think we were in some type of hotel banquet room.  Molly went first, then AMH, then Director Hughes.  I remember Molly being a bit snotty, or at least her sounding that way.  In hindsight, the tonal quality of her voice just makes her sound snotty, even today.  AMH was a nervous geek, a big surprise.  Hughes droned on about things very uninteresting to a 17-year-old.  Looking back, the ironic thing is that it was Hughes’ stuff that would hold the most interest for me today.

I remember asking Molly about The Facts of Life, and how TV was different from movies.  This was my One Question. She had been in the FoL cast during the show’s first season, before they pared it down to fewer lead characters.  She recoiled in embarrassent at the thought that anyone had seen that.  Maybe I should have been embarrassed too, that I had seen it?  No biggie I guess.  We finished, had a nice dinner, saw the movie, went back to the hotel, and flew home immediately the next morning.  And so it was, my brief brush with fame, at 17.

Now, I’ve told you that story, in order to tell you this one.

I’ve never been a big reader of books in my adult life.  This is a source of some personal shame and disgrace for me.  I’m an educated man.  I should WANT to read more books, right?   I get one or two down in a year, but that’s it.  I am, however, a voracious reader of periodicals.  Newspapers, magazines, both physical and electronic.  I love the medium. I can’t get enough.  My friend John gives me all of his old magazines after he is done with them, and I get through most of them.  Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, The Economist, Esquire, SI, Rolling Stone.

I always thought I wanted to be a critic, perhaps working for Rolling Stone or some other big time rag.  I love the artform.  After a lot of nagging from my buddies, I finally watched the movie Almost Famous a few years ago, and it connected with me in a very profound way.  I was that kid, William Miller, or at least wanted to be.  I also learned from Phillip Seymour Hoffman that being a critic was the Epitome of Uncool, which would have been a tragic lesson for me at the age of 17.

In college, I briefly majored in Journalism, and also briefly in English, worked on college newspapers, etc., but life took me in a different direction.  I’m now settled in as an IT Guy, and while the ship has sailed on those aspirations, at least professionally, I am still an admirer of the form.  Which brings me to Roger Ebert.

I started watching Sneak Previews on PBS way back in the day.  Gene and Roger sniping at one another — it was all a little uncomfortable — but mesmerizing.  Two guys so passionate about what they do that they seemed to want to kill each other over it.  Yet it the midst of the fracas, you could tell there was deep respect and admiration, for one another, and for the work.  I followed them to commercial television and At the Movies, where the high drama continued.

I always appreciated Roger’s style a bit more that Gene’s.  Roger was softer.  You could tell he loved movies so much, and he wanted a reason to like a particular film.  He seemed to give a lot more borderline thumbs-ups calls than Gene.  Gene would far more frequently stand on principle, to dislike a movie in its whole, even if it had some redeemable aspects.  It was the chemistry between the two that brought me to the TV, though. Gene’s glass was half-empty; Roger’s was half-full.  When Gene passed, I thought it was the end of something very special.

Roger has had a long, successful career.  Recently, his illness has been well documented.  If you have a chance, read the Esquire article from earlier this year.  It is so engaging, horrifying, and uplifting.  Yet the spirit of the man is intact, despite all that has happened.  While he has lost the ability to speak, he has become so prolific in other ways.  From his online journal, his movie reviews, his books, and his Twitter activity, the volume of work he is producing is simply astonishing.

Perhaps when his voice was silenced he needed new avenues to express himself.  That seems very reasonable. But I think it is more than this. There is a new urgency, a newfound desire, a reawakening if you will — a need to take his prodigious talents in new directions.  Politics, religion, humanities, art, self-reflection — all of these are woven together in the voluminous amounts of work product he is producing today.  This, on top of his day job as a movie critic, a job at which he is still the finest in the world.   He is, extraordinarily, at the absolute peak of his literary and artistic powers today.

So what it is it?  Maybe it is the sense of one’s own mortality, that sense that time is drawing to a close.  Roger lost his jaw and voice because of thyroid cancer, and its return must always loom.  There is also the fact that Roger is 68 years old as I write this, and setting cancer aside, time is going to someday run out for all of us, regardless of how we get there.

So what do we take from this?  Time is short.  Say what you gotta say while you can say it.  And if you can, go out blazing hot, because the only certainty any of us has is that eventually time will run out.

Inspiration is a funny thing.  You get it at different times in your life, from different sources, for different reasons, to do different things.  Sometimes, inspiration reminds you of something you always wanted to do. Roger inspired me when I was 17, and I visited his town of Chicago.  Here I sit writing today, 27 years later, and he is still at it.