Remembering Roger Ebert

Roger EbertHe was a grad student, pretty well known around campus since he wrote regularly for the Daily Illini. I didn’t read the paper with any regularity – I wasn’t interested in most of what it chose to cover – but I glanced at it often enough to be aware that, politically, Roger represented what had ironically (by then) come to be called the “liberal” point of view, from which I assumed he was probably studying political science. I did find his opinions interesting enough to choose to attend a talk he gave about his experience as a student for a year in South Africa. I haven’t any recollection what he said on the occasion, but given what I’ve come to know about his thinking on various issues, I’d guess he expressed pretty much the standard sentiments about that place for that time.

I had no idea he had any special interest in movies though. I went to all the showings at the Illini Film Society, and I don’t remember ever seeing Roger at any of them. The last glimpse I had of him was at a trying-to-be-trendy student hangout called the Turk’s Head rather late one night. He came in with a bunch of his pals, having had a beer or two too many, or so it seemed, since it was Roger’s opinions rather than those of his associates that the rest of us in the place got to overhear for the better part of the next hour.

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Something on the order of ten years went by before I happened to tune into a PBS show called Sneak Previews. Who should I find filling the screen but the guy I’d been used to seeing around campus? – a bit heavier now but otherwise just the same, trading quips with a contrasting physical specimen named Gene Siskel.

Siskel and EbertRoger, it turned out, was the Sun-Times‘ film critic by then and Gene was the Trib‘s, and the show they’d put together consisted of head-to-head exchanges on movies they’d seen. Although the dialog had a bit less humor than it might have, the encounter was undoubtedly fun to watch. The two men had done good job of paring their opinions down to essentials and they delivered them with just the right amount of self-confidence. Week to week, I guess I disagreed with Roger about virtually everything he chose to put into words – to the degree that I could rely on using his reviews inversely. But it wasn’t a search for wisdom or insight that made people like me tune into the show. It was the back and forth between the two men. I watched Sneak Previews on and off for a few years then gradually lost interest, but I was aware that Roger’s fame and influence continued to grow, resulting in his ultimately becoming probably the country’s best known movie critic, a fact that surprised me a little but nothing more than that. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in a minority.

Never really having been a fan, I still learned of Roger’s death with a good deal of regret. The triumph of his life seems to have been the way he handled the cancer that ended it; while his greatest misfortune was something over which he’d had absolutely no control. As a man who’d turned out to be completely and unquestioningly the product of the era in which he lived, Roger had had the accursed bad luck to be born in the United States at the middle of the twentieth century.

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