When I composed this obit to put in the MSN Movies file, I did so hoping it wouldn't have to go up for a good long while. I didn't get my wish.
I did not read Roger as voraciously as a lot of my colleagues did. And I can't say he was a seminal influence on me as a writer. I was already well on my way (in my own mind at least) with respect to what turned out to be an ultimately ill-advised career path when Siskel and Ebert became a television presence. And of course I watched, and of course I was impressed by the savviness of the whole enterprise. If you thought they were just about "thumbs up/thumbs down," you weren't listening carefully. The give-and-take of two first-rate minds is not something you associate with a lot of television programming, not then, not now. It was always there with those guys. The thumbs were a marketing tool. A lamentable one? I'm not one to say, especially as I get older. We are either of the world or opposed to it. Having opted to be of the world, they played by its rules, but also gave them some pushback. Roger was giving pushback to the right people until the end.
How could one not admire that? So of course I did. But as a critic, the thing I had the most admiration of Roger for was something I sometimes flatter myself to think of as an affinity with him: his unflagging openness, aesthetic and otherwise. As I wrote in the obit, Ebert "understood genres but didn't truck in genre hierarchies." He could enjoy what some critics refer to as "trash" without making a big production out of making sure everyone reading understood he was the kind of critic who could "enjoy trash," if you follow me. And he was always a cheerleader for maintained intellectual curiosity. In fall of 2002, at the Toronto Film Festival, I was seated with Roger and his wife Chaz at a dinner with Denzel Washington, who had brought his film Antwone Fisher to the festival. This was also the year that an anthology film about the terrorist attacks of the prior year was showing, and I mentioned to Roger that my emotions concerning that picture were such that I understood, on some level, the perspective of ultra-religious folk who had condemned The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen it. Roger sarcastically said, "Well, that's a fine critical viewpoint," and I tried to explain that I was talking strictly about a knee-jerk emotional response that I was having trouble processing. Fair enough, he conceded, but he was still a trifle put out. Any kind of preconception, regardless of circumstance, was, I think, intellectual anathema to him. He showed that by example, and when he preached it directly to me, it stuck. (That 9/11 anthology ended up being pretty lame, as it happened, but that' s neither here nor there.)