Heaven on Earth
Roger Ebert, who died last week at the age of 70, is remembered most for his passion for movies and inspiring future generations of film critics
By Carl Kozlowski 04/11/2013
There are few people in life more inspiring than the person who helps you find a career that you love. Roger Ebert, who had just penned a column in which he expressed hope of overcoming cancer, was that person for me, making his passing last week at age 70 all the more tragic and sad.
I was actually lucky enough to briefly study film under Roger (he was like the world’s coolest uncle to me, so I could never call him Ebert) in an extension class at the University of Chicago. But I actually discovered the man when I was 8 years old, and due to my hometown’s location in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I was rarely able to watch movies or most TV shows.
But I was able to watch PBS, because public television was educational and wouldn’t rot my soul. Then, one day I came across a show I’d never heard of, called “Sneak Previews” — the show that marked the initial TV incarnation of Roger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic with the Chicago Sun-Times, and his friendly rival critic, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune.
I’ll never forget the first film review of theirs that I saw, which was of the cult classic “Reel Life” by Albert Brooks, an art house comedy that would never come to Little Rock, a town which then was without art house theaters. The clip they showed was smart and funny and made me laugh, and I was excited to finally have a sense of what was going on in a movie that I actually would have wanted to see.
I kept tuning in secretly, week after week, hearing these two men argue over films and learning more than any film school could have taught me. When I was 15, I got my first job working as an usher in a movie theater, and like a prisoner released to the outside world, I breathed deeply of my newfound freedom, watching everything playing at my eight-screen theater.
That summer, Blockbuster came to town with up to 15,000 movies in stock, and my Mom suddenly wanted to see movies with me. The first film I rented was Albert Brooks’ “Real Life,” and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. By then, Roger had been releasing collections of his reviews in book form, and my addiction to film was completely out of control.
Movies became my window to a world which I had never experienced. I soon came to realize that many of my favorites, such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Blues Brothers,” had the common element of being set in Chicago, inspiring me to leave Little Rock for the Windy City, the magical metropolis where all the most entertaining movies seemed to be set. It was also where both Siskel and Roger lived and worked.
Before I moved there, I wrote Roger a letter in which I told him how much his work meant to me and asked if we could meet for lunch. His secretary wrote me a sweet, handwritten note saying Roger was approachable to people who took his film classes in the extension program of the University of Chicago.
And so I took his class, experiencing the thrill of seeing one of my heroes in action as he provided stunning insights into some of the greatest films. Getting to chat with him afterward was always an awe-inspiring experience, and through my friendship with Siskel’s eventual successor, Richard Roeper, I was able to keep saying hi to Roger throughout the eight years I lived in Chicago.
Cancer is perhaps the cruelest of diseases, often taking an agonizingly slow time to snuff out a life. It is even worse when it comes and goes and comes back again, and most evil of all when it ruins someone’s life long before it actually ends it.
Roger died of a cancer that had left him unable to speak since 2006. In one of the most heartbreaking yet courageous portraits of a human being I have ever read, a devastatingly intimate profile of Roger in Esquire a couple years after that showed that even as he was unable to ever be heard normally again, he refused to give up.
Indeed, last year Roger wrote more than 300 reviews and countless blog posts in the most productive year of his life. And even as he was perched on the edge of death last week, just two days before he passed, he shared an essay with readers in which he revealed ambitious plans to expand his Web presence and written work even while admitting that his cancer had returned for the umpteenth time and he would be needing to pass the reviews of most movies off to other critics.
Roger had a defiant sense of hope in that essay, proving that if he was going to go, he was going down swinging. I’d like to think that he’s in heaven now, able to watch the greatest movies in the most amazing movie palace, and more importantly able to speak freely again, sitting in a celestial balcony aisle seat arguing about movies with Siskel.
That’s my hope for both men, who gave my life a little bit of heaven here on earth.