“Of course everyone’s time must run out. But not yet. Not until I’m finished touching a few more bases.” – Roger Ebert
Dear Roger Ebert,
My Dad texted me that you have passed on. You’re now reunited with Gene Siskel.
While you may be happy to see your long time friend and work partner, the rest of us are very sad to watch you go. I, for one, am in tears. I’ve been reading your latest book, Life Itself, for several months. Because I don’t want it to ever end. Somehow, despite that strange intuition of knowing you’ll be losing someone soon, you continue a project with them – fixing a car, weaving a rug or even planning a party – simply extending your own denial of the inevitable.
You have no idea of who I am. But it’s really important that you know how much your influence has spread into not just my life, but also the life of my family. I just wish I wrote this to you earlier.
In the late ‘70s, my Mom, Dad and Sister left the Soviet Union and arrived in this country. Specifically, we moved to Chicago and lived in the Uptown neighborhood, just off Lawrence and Sheridan Road. At the time this was a rough area and the roach–infested public housing building that we lived in made up for the cold black tile floor by providing a beautiful twelfth floor view of Lake Michigan.
Both my parents worked two jobs each to put food on the table and my Sis and I were bussed off to Akiba Schechter Hebrew School, all the way down in Hyde Park. The four of us rarely had time together as a family but when we did, we went to the movies.
Back then, we could go to either the 400 in Roger’s Park or the Lincoln Village, where the matinee ticket cost $1. We could afford the $4, so into the Gran Torino we’d hop in and drive.
We loved going to the movies. It was an event. It was our chance to not just be entertained, but also feel engrossed into American culture. And, as immigrants, integrating into that culture was critical. Mind you, none of us spoke English well back then, but it didn’t matter: the big screen knows how to show and not tell.
Because all our resources, including time and money, were sparse, we couldn’t just go to any movie. We had to be discriminate. And, so, we turned to you.
On our wood-paneled Zenith TV that my parents bought at Abt appliance store, we’d watch At The Movies and, based on your opinions, thoughts and recommendations, we’d make our own. If you gave the film a thumb up, it greatly increased the probability of us watching it.
Your perspective rang even more influential during December. That stereotype that Jewish people go to the movies and eat Chinese food on Christmas is true. The studios release so many films during that time frame, cluttering the theaters. You helped us navigate. You helped us make our movie decisions.
We eventually moved to Skokie and off to Old Orchard we went. For that $1 deal, we’d see second-run screenings either at the Skokie Theater or at the Morton Grove Theater. If we craved a night at home with Edwardo’s deep dish pizza, my Dad and I would drive over to the tiny movie rental shop the Indian immigrant owned on Dempster. He kept some great titles, bridging our very different backgrounds together.
When Gene Siskel passed way, we were quite sad. The two of you were like extended family members. My people don’t typically like having others tell us what to do, but we listened to the two of you like kids who hang onto every word of a good teacher.
I eventually left Chicago to go to graduate school and then settled in Cleveland. In the past four years, life’s changed a 1000 times, but this love of movies, rooted three generations deep into my DNA, has blossomed into a rewarding career that combines teaching screenwriting to college students as well as covering the film beat for this very publication. For two years I was even a film critic and early on would begin each review process with “I wonder what would Roger Ebert think about this story?” I’d read yours after mine was published. Seeing even an announce of similarity of observation between the two brought me the greatest glee.
Over the past four years I’ve also interviewed numerous filmmakers and collaborated on several pieces with one smart Ben Lieblich, who not only loves cinema as much as I do but has read several of your books. We’re both Gen Xers and the quintessential latchkey kids; we spent a lot of time alone. We watched a lot of movies and we both have lots of opinions on them.
When my Dad texted me of your passing, Ben was the first person I texted. He called me immediately and we exchanged our sorrows and our joys. We talked about your writing. We shared how much we enjoy reading your books. I told Ben that in Life Itself you have a whole chapter dedicated to Scorsese. Ben knows how much I love Scorsese. And how much I cared for you.
You set a bar, Mr. Ebert. You set the bar.
I even met you once. Probably an unmemorable situation for you, but quite the moment for me. I was working at Arcadia, a gift and novelty shop at Water Tower Place, where I supported myself while earning a Communication degree at DePaul. You came into the store and were looking around. I have no memory of what you purchased. What I clearly recall is how private you were. There’s so much I wanted to say to you then, but your demeanor and body language signaled a man who just wanted to go about his business and his day in quiet. And in peace.
I’m still in tears as I type this and am following all the posts on Facebook of others who admired and respected you. L.A. Confidential plays in the background on my TV screen, keeping me company. At a time like this, I know you’d want me to enjoy a good movie.
Reprinted with permission and gratitude from CoolCleveland.com.