Roger Ebert: The Best Pen Pal Ever

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on April 8, 2013.

The strangest part about Roger Ebert dying is the fact that I won’t be able to send him an email anymore. Much less get one of his responses, usually leading up to a punch line. We’re not always surprised when someone dies, but we’re certainly never prepared for them not being at the other end any more. And that’s what this is like.

I’ll miss writing to him. I’ll miss him writing to me. I’ll miss the writing because I never knew Roger when he had a voice to speak with. I only got to know him when the voice he had left were the words on a page.

It started with a simple tweet that I’d drummed up, not thinking anyone would read it, because, at the time, only 98 people might:

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the only thing I can think of that doesn’t need more cowbell.”

When I woke up the next morning with 500 more Twitter followers due to one influential retweet, I realized what a sense of humour Roger had about himself.

“Cowbell?” he responded. “Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s when we became pen pals. Emails, Twitter, his blog, my blog, Facebook: anything worked so long as words could be typed. We’d exchange correspondence about all sorts of things, and he kept egging me on to read Willa Cather because of the French-Canadian connection.

At the time, I was staying in London, a city he truly loved, as evidenced in a book he co-authored, The Perfect London Walk, which he expanded into a blog post, “The London Perambulator.”

When I asked him where I could find 35mm film for my Lomo camera, he immediately recommended Tottenham. When I wondered where to spend a free afternoon, he suggested Sir John Soane’s museum. He didn’t mention the park in front of the building, probably because he was sure I’d notice. He trusted everyone to have the wherewithal to figure things out. He didn’t mind nudging you in a direction, but the delight of discovery was down to you.

Roger loved the Internet, and the Internet loved him back. He even had a creative way of dealing with trolls. Consider this exchange from the comments on one of his blog posts:

Mike Hunt: I am waiting for Roger to admit he messed up regarding the JPMorgan story.

Ebert: I am waiting for you to admit that is not your real name.

Disagreeing doesn’t have to end in war. That’s what Roger kept trying to say when he was asked about Gene Siskel. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but the word “love” came out in any sentence Roger had to string together around Gene.

I didn’t always agree with Roger either. I thought he was wrong when he said video games could never be art, and I told him so, and I wrote a whole blog post about it. And what did he do? He called it a “thoughtful rebuttal” and shared it with his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Not that I swayed him. Nor did the many other folks whose counter-arguments he acknowledged in the same way. It wasn’t about changing his mind so much as creating a discourse that was greater than himself. And he proved, despite the Internet, that it could be civil.

In one memorable blog post called “Nil by Mouth,” Roger said what he missed most about eating wasn’t the food so much as the discussions that inevitably revolved around it. “Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family,” he wrote. “They’re the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done – probably most of our recreational talking.”

He wanted to create a larger film conversation with the Far-Flung Correspondents (FFCs) and Demanders, an international community of film critics that he recruited, and that I was privileged to be a part of. Some of us were better known than others, some of us were pro critics, some of us critics in the making, but with Roger’s generous endorsement, we all got to share some of his readers.

We also became something of a family. Writing for the FFCs didn’t just mean sharing your thoughts about movies, it also led to group emails full of inside jokes. Eventually, I got to meet Roger and the other FFCs in person at Ebertfest, a festival he created purely for the love of cinema, which takes place in Roger’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana. The first year I went, my husband and I invited everyone to a local Karaoke club. Roger’s (sublime) wife Chaz even took the mic.

Afterwards, in a group email, Roger clowned:

“Ali was found the next morning grazing in a cow pasture outside of town. Grace and Olivia were partying up in the Altgeld Hall bell tower. Gerardo was slumbering in the lap of the Alma Mater statue–not easy, cuz she’s standing. The others ran up a $9,000 bill at Steak ‘n’ Shake and put it on my tab.”

The second time I attended Ebertfest, I decided to bring a bit of Montreal with me. To thank him for inviting my husband and I a second time, I presented Roger with Volume 1 of Rick Trembles’s Motion Picture Purgatory Anthology. I’d asked Rick to autograph the page that featured his illustrated review on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a film Rick enjoyed as much as I did. Roger put his hand on his heart, which was his way of saying “love” or “thank you.” Always with a joke at the tip of his tongue, he could still get deep sentiment across, and concisely at that!

The last FFC piece I wrote for Roger was on The Hobbit, a movie his readers kept waiting for him to review. Because his injury prevented him from being able to, I offered to do it in his stead.

The moment it was published, I went into the standard-issue panic that sets in when I put something out there. “Why do I always hurl myself into the fanboy pit?” I asked him. He reassured me, saying he always deleted the truly offensive ones, but that most comments showed that people were actually engaging in my review. “You’re getting good hits,” he said, in cheerleader mode, because he sincerely felt what we were doing, saying and writing mattered. Because it mattered to talk honestly about something you cared about. That was his day job.

Readers would also cheer him on, like when he’d write a damn good blog. His illness, death, religion and politics were popular topics. In one post, he addressed his Catholic upbringing and his struggles with the idea of God. Having had a similar experience, I responded:

Olivia Collette: Since becoming agnostic, I’ve often said that I preferred it when I believed in a god, because it meant believing in a magical afterlife…When I die, I probably still won’t believe in god, at least not with any certainty. But I will no doubt wish that I did.

Ebert: I was perfectly content before I was born, and have no doubt I will be the same after I die. Off topic: You have read Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, have you not?

I’m on it, Roger.

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