My weekend in Champaign-Urbana with Roger Ebert

Was it really eleven years ago?

I don’t spend much time on jealousy when it comes to the world of film-related events because I am aware that I have been blessed with dozens of amazing experiences that other people would want to have. There’s one particular experience that I have kept as a personal memory until now, and I feel like if there’s ever going to be a “right” moment to share it, this is it.

I’m sure you’ll read many pieces today about Roger Ebert and what he meant to film criticism. I know that he was one of the first two people who helped me understand that films were more than just stories but actual art worth engaging on a deeper level. I first saw “Sneak Previews,” his old-school PBS show, when I was seven, and I remember watching clips from John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as Gene and Roger discussed the film and being positively terrified just at that glimpse of Michael Myers. While Roger and Gene remained part of my critical diet as I grew more and more interested in film, they were not the only critics I listened to or liked, and as time passed and their show continued to change, it became less essential to me as a viewer. Part of that was because I started to realize how often I disagreed with the two of them, and at a certain point in my younger life, I thought you were supposed to read critics you agreed with, a belief I thankfully no longer hold.

When I was at Ain’t It Cool and Harry Knowles got tapped to join Roger for a few episodes of “At The Movies,” that was one of those few moments where I genuinely felt a deep and almost painful jealousy. It was only made worse when I heard that the reason I could not be considered to join Roger on the show was because “Disney did not want a fictional character on the show.” At that point, I was still “Moriarty” to the general public, and Disney, who produced the show, were not prepared to deal with the weird world of online pseudonyms. I finally met Roger and his producer Andrea Gronvall at Sundance in 2001, and they could not have been any lovelier in terms of how they treated me.

That was significant at that time because I had already gotten used to being treated like garbage by pretty much everyone from the old guard. The internet was still seen as “lesser” in those days, a goof, a place that generated nothing but weirdos. My first professional press event, ShoWest 1999, was an eye-opening lesson in just how shitty people could be to anyone who wrote online, and there were certain people like David Poland who began as condescending assholes and whose attitudes never changed over the years. Even today, some of those same people continue to treat me in person and in print like I’m some pretender who doesn’t deserve to be part of the conversation, who love to attack and tear down. Not Ebert, though. He was incredibly encouraging, even when we would scrap in print.

And we did. Several times. I remember after I published my review of “Fight Club,” which I adored, and Roger wrote me a very short e-mail:

“You fell for that macho wheezy porn trick? Really? – re”

That was it. Just a poke. But we went back and forth about the film for weeks after that, neither of us willing to concede any ground. The idea that he was willing to have that conversation just for the fun of having that conversation was amazing to me. Later, when I specifically called him out for giving “The Cell” a rapturous review after admonishing “Fight Club” for its moral failings, I was surprised at how crazy the talkbackers got, as if challenging Roger on an idea was sacrilege. As mad as they got, Ebert knew that we were continuing that earlier debate, and he was happy to pick it up and continue the argument.

I figured that was what our relationship would consist of, that online back and forth, and that was enough for me. Then in March of 2002, Roger wrote and asked me if I would like to join him in Champaign-Urbana, his hometown, to be a guest at his Overlooked Film Festival. He wanted to do a double-feature of Fritz Lang’s original silent masterpiece “Metropolis” and the Rin Taro anime film “Metropolis,” and he wanted me to join him for a conversation about anime onstage afterwards.

I have never said yes to an invitation faster than I did that day.

What I didn’t expect was the way the weekend unfolded. When I arrived at the airport, I was picked up by a festival volunteer and taken to the student housing where guests of the festival stayed. There was an opening night party, so as soon as I was dressed, I headed back out to the party, where I got to meet Roger. The party ran late, and at the end of it, Roger told me that he’d be happy to take me home.

What followed was a two hour drive around Champaign-Urbana, just the two of us in the car, as he told me stories about his childhood and his time in college and as we discussed film and life and everything else. It was surreal, but it also served as the last step in me seeing Roger as not just an icon, not just one of my heroes, but as a friend, as an exceedingly decent person who had built a life for himself that I admired greatly. That conversation is still as fresh for me now as it was that night, and what it ultimately taught me is that people who have nothing to fear are often the best people. They aren’t worried about what you can do for them or what you might do to them. They are secure in their own world, and the curiosity they feel is genuine, without any deeper agenda. Roger had a remarkable ability to create an instant intimacy in conversation, and he knew how to ask the right questions to draw you out. By the time he finally dropped me off, I felt truly welcomed for the first time in my critical career. The reason I am still writing about movies now is because of the kindness he showed me that night.

The rest of the week was more of the same. We saw great films like “George Washington” and “Wonder Boys” and “Two Women” and “Grand Canyon” and we chatted with guests like David Gordon Green and Kylie Jones and Kris Kristofferson and Robert Forster, and we stayed up late packing a crowd into the local Steak’n’Shake each night. It was one of the purest moviegoing pleasures of my life, and the entire event was capped off by the single most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced. Sitting onstage with Roger, talking about anime and silent cinema and taking questions from the audience, finally stepping into that show that first made me think about criticism, I felt at home. I felt like I found something that I could do, and Roger made me believe that there was real value in my perspective.

As we stood backstage afterwards, I felt drunk from the adrenaline, and Roger smiled at me, knowing full well how much the event meant to me. He leaned in and said, “By the way… I saw ‘Fight Club’ again. I’m still not sure I love it, but I think you’re more right than wrong.”

I’ve run into him plenty of times since then at festivals, and he was always great to catch up with. There are no words that could adequately describe to you how much Roger and his kindness meant to me. My thoughts are with his amazing wife Chaz and with the entire community of people who were touched by his writing, his television shows, and his enormous unstoppable heart. He was a giant, and all of us who write about art for a living owe him an enormous debt. No one will ever reach an audience quite as large again. I know many people will choose to use photos of Roger in happier, healthier days to illustrate their stories, and I almost did. But one of the final lessons he passed along by example came after his cancer diagnosis. It would have been easy for him to retire, to step out of the limelight, and to hide himself and his undeniably-different visage. Instead, he became even more prolific, and his writing became even stronger, even more introspective. In losing his ability to speak, his voice became even clearer. I hope that whatever I have to face in my own life, I can do so with one-tenth the grace and wit that Roger faced his cancer.

The balcony is well and truly closed.