You know how you mean to write something, and you think, “Oh, I’ll wait until I’m feeling it more” and then you just don’t?
I’ve spent the last three months (or maybe ten years, I’ve lost count) meaning to write a letter to Roger Ebert to say thank you, and I kept saying I’d do it some other time. You’d think the multiple cancers, the surgeries, the amazing blog, the Twitter feed, the memoir, the announcement of the “leave of presence” earlier this week would have been enough to kick me in the pants to do it, and I never did.
Now, I have no choice. I’m writing my thank you letter to Roger Ebert.
Roger Mr. Ebert Roger Ebert Roger,
Thank you for coming to Fargo, North Dakota, in 2003. I’m sure you speak at film festivals and master classes all the time, and by now they all probably blend into one another. Especially when you come to somewhere like Fargo — another smallish, out-of-the-way town, another snow-capped prairie, another historic movie house, another crowd of students at your talk for extra credit — I have to say thank you.
Thank you for speaking at my college. In my role as the editor of the campus paper that year, I was asked to introduce you at the master class, and I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. I cobbled together something generic and blase, then went to my journalism professor and source of sanity, Cathy, embarrassed by what I’d written. She descended upon the Internet and found your words on film, on criticism, on life, and helped me weave them into a bit of biography. When I finished speaking and you said something to the effect of, “After that, I don’t think I need to say anything else,” I smiled but wanted to shout to everyone, “Cathy did it, she’s amazing, I just read it.” I remember that introduction and feeling like it was one of the first times I ever had an assignment that called on me to write like an adult, so thank you.
Thank you for not treating me like a kid. You probably don’t remember, but before your talk, you and I shot the breeze for a few minutes in a nameless room in the campus center. We traded stories of the perils of college journalism, you citing your time at the Daily Illini, and me in my weekly paper world probably overwhelmed by the idea of publishing every day. I probably told the story of the unchanged dummy cutline under a world leader’s photograph — I have a vague memory of you laughing in an “oh God, I’ve been there” way. When I tell people this story even to this day, I make sure I point out how greatly I appreciated (and still appreciate) how gracious you were and treated me as something of an equal, rather than the nieve wanna-be journalist I actually was.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. Even at the time, I knew that the talk you were giving was likely the talk you always gave to master classes, but we ate it up anyway. Years later, I still remember you admonishing the people who said they don’t like black and white films, reminding them that they miss more than half of the world’s best films with that attitude. I remember your picks for best film of all time (Citizen Kane) and worst (I Spit On Your Grave). I remember you said that people consulted your reviews to see why they weren’t going to go see the movie you thought they should see and why they were going to see the movie you hated. I remember the line about no good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough. I remember leaving with an overwhelming feeling that we should love what we love, write honestly, expand our horizons. It wasn’t anything new, per se (after all, Cathy and I had read a lot of your classic quotes when putting together the introduction), but it felt new. Your talk about the wisdom gleaned from of forty years of writing made writing seem new when I was completely and totally burned out, and that is a gift I needed I can never repay.
Thank you for humoring me later. Following your talk, I approached you with my friend Liz and begged a minute of your time. I introduced her to you as the best staff writer our paper had (a line she gave me trouble about then and even a few weeks ago reminded me of, because she was one of two staff writers on the paper at the time — but she really was one of the best writers on staff, regardless of job title) and asked if we could trouble you for a picture. I really meant of you and Liz, as you were one of her heroes, but you thought I meant me and you, and I didn’t have the guts to correct you (a moment Liz also gave me trouble about later). But you took a minute for both of us when you had other things to do, and that impressed me as well.
That hour in April 2003 has stayed in my memory — clearly not as freshly as I would have hoped, but it was one of the high points in an extremely memorable year. And it keeps coming back, as I read I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie for Cathy’s class that fall, as I felt pain at your surgeries and near-death moments, as I found you as a voice of clarity and sanity and reason on Twitter, and laughed and cried at your blog posts. I bought the edition of Casablanca with your commentary on it, just so I would know I had the voice you’d lost in my library. I read your memoir this winter and it pulled at my heart and my gut. It made me feel new about writing like your talk ten years prior had — your enthusiasm, your true love for movies and writing, your honesty, your way with words. From Steak ‘n Shake to Citizen Kane to Chaz, your unabashed love for what you loved moved me. It made me want to write. It made me think, “I really need to write him that letter and say thank you.”
And now I’ve missed you. But I needed to say thank you anyway.
Voracious reader, amateur critic, recovering journalist, appreciative fan