Roger Ebert died yesterday. Across the internet, critics and writers have eulogized him and recalled their experiences with him. Most critics felt his influence even if they never met him personally. Some of my favorite critics including Nathan Rabin, Stephen Hyden, Jim DeRogatis, and Wesley Morris have made excellent contributions to the conversation. For them, his nationally syndicated reviews, his weekly television show At the Movies with colleague/rival Gene Siskel, or interactions with him at film festivals, at the Lake Street screening room in Chicago, or at the Chicago Sun-Times offices were formative experiences for them as burgeoning critics.
I can’t say that I share those experiences. I’ve never been to the Lake Street screening room. I grew up in a Chicago Tribune household so I never read his reviews growing up. I have some vague memories of At the Movies from when I was a kid, but it wasn’t something I consciously watched. Honestly, I can probably trace most of my initial awareness of Ebert to his appearance on an episode of The Critic that my friend Jeff had taped. Until he was featured in an incredible Esquire profile in 2010 that detailed the loss of his ability to eat and speak due to a battle with cancer, I didn’t think about him much growing up, although I was very aware of his importance and his stature as both a critic and a local icon. His presence loomed over Chicago in a way that few of the city’s residents have.
During the 1970s, my uncle Tom Fitzpatrick wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, and he developed alongside Ebert at the paper. They were friends and colleagues, and they influenced each other as they established their respective voices as writers. Both won Pulitzer Prizes for their work at the paper. By the time I was born, Tom had moved to Phoenix, but I saw him a few times growing up, and I was in awe of his life. He was a great writer and an effortlessly interesting and assured person. When I was in late elementary school, my family visited him and my aunt in Phoenix, and he took me on a tour of the offices at the Arizona Republic. I was over a decade away from realizing that I wanted to be a writer, but that day is still one of my favorite memories from a child. Even though I had no inkling of my future, it was a formative experience for me nonetheless.
When Tom passed away during the summer of 2002, I had just turned 14 and was about to start high school. His memorial service was held at the Tribune Building in Chicago (he also wrote for the Chicago Tribune for a few years), and Ebert was one of the many speakers who showed up to laud my uncle’s life and work. I don’t really remember anything he said when he was up at the microphone, but I remember him being warm and funny and grateful for the experiences he had with Tom in his earliest days as a film critic. Even after decades of establishing himself as the greatest film critic in history, he hadn’t lost the joy that he got from movies or from the people he worked with and counted among his friends. I was extremely shy at the time, but he was so inviting that I managed to build up the courage to go talk to him. Rush Hour 2 had just come out on VHS and I had been watching it at home frequently, and even though I was an awkward, inarticulate, and vaguely surly kid he seemed happy to take a few minutes to listen to my opinion of the film and share his own (he was not a fan of either the movie or Chris Tucker, although he had a lot of nice things to say about Jackie Chan; I liked everything about it, and even though I know now that it isn’t a great movie I still find it immensely entertaining and it’s one of the few VHS tapes sitting on my shelf next to all of my DVDs).
I barely qualify as a critic, and I’m not that good of a writer yet. The one thing I have going for me is a passion for music and culture that has sustained me through my frustration with my too slowly-developing abilities and my difficulty finding paid writing jobs. A small but important part of that came from my chance to talk to a man who cared so deeply for movies and for the people who watched them that he would listen to me as if I was a peer rather than just some kid. Without the respect this titan of a writer and critic afforded me and my ideas even when they differed from his own it is unlikely that I ever would have built up the confidence to begin committing my own opinions on the art that most moves me to paper and putting them out into the ether.
Roger will be missed.