Roger Ebert Loved Photoshop
In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the most severe insult one character can hurl at another is “Critic!” Actors are certainly fond of saying that never at any time or anywhere in the history of the world has a statue ever been erected in honor of a critic—whereas they have of actors. I don’t know if that’s true, I have friends who are actors (yes, I admit it), and they are notoriously sensitive about people who write nasty things about them, or even good things for that matter, because even the good reviews are never good enough, but I think they may be correct.
Which brings us to Roger Ebert. I have no idea whether or not a statue will ever be raised in his honor, but I suspect if any critic has a shot at it, Ebert does.
Ebert was important to me for a number of reasons. Not being from Chicago, I never read his reviews in print, but I did watch him on TV, starting with that seminal show Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel, which morphed into At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and through his subsequent show with Richard Roeper. I have a particular fondness for the first version of the show, mostly because the mid to late 70’s was an exciting time for movies. Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, and Speilberg anyone? And not the let’s-see-if-this-movie-will-win-us-awards phase of their careers, but the early, fun stuff when they were redefining American film (along with Schrader and De Palma and Allen and…you get the idea). I’m not saying I was a fan of all these filmmakers, but when you look back at their body of work, and the actors that were just starting (Streep, De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Keaton) it would be hard to name another time when movies were as exciting. Sitting up in the balcony, taking it all in with us, was Roger Ebert. He never told us what to think, he just shared his reactions and invited us to agree or disagree with him.
There was something so ordinary about Ebert. I mean that in a good way. He was like that guy in college that you went out and had a beer with after you saw three movies in a row. I admired Siskel, but I never felt that way about him. To me he seemed more like the kind of guy who, sure, would go see three movies in a row with you, but then afterwards he’d order some kind of fancy wine the name of which only he could pronounce. I have no idea whether or not that was the case, as I never did get a chance to meet Siskel., but I did spend some time with Roger Ebert, and I know he was a regular guy because he helped me with a gag gift for my brother-in-law.
Ebert came to The Savannah Film Festival in 2004, and by all accounts he had a good time with us. Heck, when you’re getting an award with Peter O’Toole, pretty much everyone is guaranteed a good time. It was a fun year. Ebert even wrote about it: www.rogerebert.com/festivals-and-awards/savannah-film-festival-citizen-kane-still-holds-secrets
The day he left the festival, I arranged to have breakfast with Ebert, and although we were interrupted several times (including by Peter O’Toole), he did his best to give me his undivided attention and we had a great conversation. I was most eager to discuss his review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film that had been released earlier that year and one that had divided both the critical community and the movie-going public. Ebert’s response to the film was reasoned and even-handed. I have included a link to the review (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-passion-of-the-christ-2004), and as you read it, try and remember how angry and vehement the public discourse over this movie was. Ebert did an amazing job of sorting it all out. I remember staying away from the movie for a while because I simply did not want to be attacked if I either liked it or didn’t like it (people were that opinionated), and it was only after I read Ebert’s response that I felt brave enough to go to the theater. I remember thinking, hey, if worse comes to worse, I’ll simply refer people to Ebert’s column. As we discussed this, he told me that he believed it was a film the late Gene Siskel would have greatly admired, and that as he watched it and wrote about it, that thought was very much with him. It was apparent he still keenly felt the passing of his fellow critic and friend who died in 1999. It was a touching moment.
So, why did Roger Ebert love Photoshop?
Well, to be fair, I can’t say with absolute certainty that he loved that software, but I can say with absolute certainty that he loved one particular piece that was created using it.
A little back story. My brother-in-law Robert loves movies and often calls me after seeing the latest release. I mean like in the car on his way home. This is slightly irritating because he is the kind of avid movie fan who sees a movie the weekend it opens, usually the very first showing, too, and I’m lucky if I make it to the theater by the second weekend. All in all I would say that Robert sees more movies than I do, because if a movie tanks at the box office, it’s gone before I can even think about trying to see it. That generally works out poorly for Robert and well for me, although he missed John Carter last year and I saw it (okay, I have to confess: I liked it). Now I’m not going to say my brother-in-law’s taste in movies is deplorable (especially because I liked John Carter), but I think even Robert would say he is more generous with his assessment of films than I am. Our verbal back and forth on the phone gave him the idea that we were some sort of low rent Siskel and Ebert, and that we should have our own show. Since most of my rebuttals to him consisted of the words “You’re wrong,” I never fully bought in to that, but I’ve seen worse things on TV, so who knows. One thing I could always count on was Robert being able to quote Roger Ebert’s reviews. He truly respected and admired him, which is why, when he learned that I would be meeting him, he took a photograph of himself and his daughter Katie standing in front of Windsor Castle (they had lived in England for a while), a photo of Roger Ebert he found in a magazine, combined them through the magic of Photoshop and then asked me to get Ebert to autograph it.
I was somewhat reluctant to do this, but the image was so cheesy and funny (Ebert was giving his trademark “thumbs up”) that I knew I had to try. As our breakfast was coming to an end, I pulled out the photo with some sort of lame explanation about a brother-in-law in a mental institution and it would be a thrill for him if… I was all ready to make a comparison similar to the sick kid and the Called Shot in The Babe Ruth Story, but as it turns out, that was unnecessary. As soon as Ebert saw the photo, he roared with laughter. He asked for an explanation, I told him, and he cheerfully asked for a pen. He signed it” Robert: Windsor was a gas! Thumbs up! Roger Ebert.”
Roger Ebert may never get a statue put up in his honor, but the signed photo of him is encased in a glass cube on my brother-in-law’s mantle, and it is a sort of memorial to a man who loved movies and helped many of us watch them a little differently. Because it is displayed so prominently in my brother-in-law’s home, it feels like he’s part of our family. I hope Roger Ebert would have like that. I know I do.