Everyone called him Roger

From the archives: Brian D. Johnson remembers a prolific, essential and indefatigable critic and unofficial TIFF founding father

It came as such a sad shock. Only yesterday, coining an original phrase with his last words, Roger Ebert tweeted that he was about to take “a leave of presence.” The tweet linked to a piece he had published just the day before in the Chicago Sun Times, the newspaper where he worked as a film critic for 46 years. With his customary eloquence and modest grace, Roger explained that, because his cancer had returned, he would be scaling down his activities. He usually knocks off about 200 reviews a year. But last year, despite his health issues, he said he wrote 306 reviews, more than during any year of his career, along with various blogs and articles. He then went on to map out the myriad projects he was looking forward to in the coming months of his new, scaled-down career—including the Apr. 9 launch of Ebert Digital, an interactive website that will be, among other things, a home to his archive of more than 10,000 reviews.

“What is a leave of presence?” he wrote. “It means I am not going away.”

Roger was such a prolific, essential and indefatigable critic, I couldn’t imagine him going away. It would be out of character.I refer to him as Roger not because we were close friends; but during several decades of running into each other at festivals and screenings, we were friendly acquaintances. Everyone called him Roger. He was the kind of guy who always made time for you. Many years ago, in the Stone Age of the Internet, when I was new to the Cannes film festival and having technical trouble filing a story, he took me down to the bowels of the festival’s Palais bunker, and helped me find a fix. He was a celebrity among film critics but never acted like one. He was eminently approachable. So was his film criticism: Roger was a public intellectual with a sharp eye and quicksilver intelligence who didn’t put on intellectual airs. It’s as if he had no time for it. There were too many films to watch, too much waterfront to cover.

He became famous as the two-thumbs up guy who brought film criticism to TV with Gene Siskel, two pre-Internet guys in v-necked sweaters who created their own chat room. There were some critics who felt he vulgarized their profession. But this was before everything was online, and most likely his critics never bothered to read him. Roger was above all a superb writer and scrupulous journalist, in fact the first film critic to with the Pulitizer Prize. Even after he was stricken by cancer, losing half his jaw and all his voice to reconstructive surgery, he carried on without missing a beat. His voice just changed media. He made Twitter his home, and spoke from his fingertips with a relentless speed and virtuosity that left the rest of us in the dust.

Film critics tend not to read others; before writing our own reviews, we want to avoid being influenced, and afterwards . . . well, by then it seems pointless. But I would end up reading Roger retroactively, often years after he’d written a review. Whenever I have to refresh my memory of a film, I go straight to Ebert, and not just because his review is usually perched at the top of the list on IMDB. Roger had a phenomenal skill for conjuring what happens on screen: he would see a movie and translate the experience with uncanny lucidity. He had an eye for narrative detail, and I’m not talking about plot summary. And while he expressed firm opinions, he didn’t let them get in the way of his reportage. Unlike more august critics, such as Pauline Kael—whom he worshiped as a young aspiring critic—he never tried to upstage the art; he wasn’t a show-off. Smirking wasn’t his style.

These days a lot of young film critics have been honed by film courses and have never learned to be journalists. Smart-ass attitude runs rampant in my métier. Roger never seemed to acquire that, even with fame. He was the best kind of old-school journalist, who made lively, responsible reportage an essential part of the job. Yet he was also on the cutting edge of his profession as a techno geek and a media freak. He brought film criticism first to television and then to the new frontier of social media with a pioneering zeal.

As critics, there are films we have to see, films we want see and then a whole bunch more that weigh on our conscience. Roger was the most diligent critic around. Even when he was riding high as a talk-show celebrity, you would still find him in the trenches at film festivals, from Cannes to TIFF, going above and beyond the call of duty in the dark, rooting out obscure films, and occasionally making some of them famous. When Michael Moore, a complete unknown, premiered his debut documentary, Roger and Me, at TIFF, Ebert’s rave review sent the film, and Moore’s career, into orbit. He was constantly championing the Little Film That Could, or the subtitled gem that might otherwise slip into obscurity. Here, for example, is what he said about that tiny Canadian classic Goin’ Down the Road when he saw it in 1970, praising Don Shebib at the expense of Cassavetes:

“The easy male camaraderie of the two friends is so unforced that it betrays similar scenes in ‘Husbands‘ for what they are: three professional actors narcissistically killing time. In ‘Goin’ Down the Road,’ Shebib does what the Cassavetes of ‘Shadows’ knew how to do, and he does it better. . . ‘Goin’ Down the Road‘ is about hard times here and now, and it’s the best movie to hit town in a long time.”

Roger could also be considered an unofficial founding father of the Toronto International Film Festival. Before he gave up a dangerous taste for alcohol, he was part of the heavy-drinking crowd on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes who cooked up the idea of a film festival in Toronto. The late Dusty Cohl, one of TIFF’s three founders, was his close friend. Roger, along with a small clutch of prominent American film critics, helped put the Toronto festival on the map. From 1982 to 1984, he and Gene Siskel hosted a series of celebrity tributes—to Robert Duvall, Martin Scorsese and Warren Beatty—that were pivotal in taking TIFF to the big time. Roger loved the festival. He was a terrific booster of this  plucky, intensely hospitable event that grew into the TIFF juggernaut. The pluralistic approach of its programming, which embraced farflung world cinema and Hollywood glamour with bipartisan élan, mirrored his own catholic tastes.

Independent film criticism, like independent film, has lost a lot of ground to celebrity nonsense in recent years.Writing all the way down to the wire, Roger Ebert has done his work so assiduously that his expansive canon, and his equally generous spirit, will be around to inspire those who can’t get enough of talking and writing about movies.

Not unlike the late, great Globe and Mail film writer Jay Scott, yet with a more plainspoken style, Roger Ebert showed how it was possible to be both an astute critic and unabashed fan when the moment called for it. He threw himself into the screen, and the scene that surrounds it, with the enthusiasm of an insatiable student, a devotee who became the de facto dean of his profession.

After Jay died, I would often find myself thinking, before writing a review, “What would Jay think?”—something I didn’t dare ask myself while he, a rival colleague, was alive. Now, when I find myself confused by a movie I’ve seen, which happens more often than I care to admit, I might well ask: “What would Roger think?” and try to have an imaginary conversation with a man who will be missed more than we know.

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