It was a nebulous joke I'd tried out before, unsuccessfully, with professional Darwinists possessing a more evolved sense of humor. For Roger, though, who decades ago cut his teeth as a sportswriter before finding his true calling, my appropriation of a famous Yogi Berra-ism hit the sweet spot. He retweeted it. Then he started rummaging through my blog, linking first to a review I wrote on a new oral biography about Robert Altman (a filmmaker he championed dating way back to M*A*S*H), then to a silly-fun March Madness-related "tournament" I put together that pitted Altman's movies against each other. Getting his attention, garnering his praise was a thrill: as a blogger, on the very rare days when your Sitemeter hits skyrocketed, you knew Ebert had everything to do with it. But as I sit here typing these sentences, reflecting on Roger's life and death, what makes me happiest is the thought that, on at least one occasion, I told a dumb joke that made him laugh.
Needless to say, over the last few years, whenever Roger "laughed" it was internalized, like all his other thoughts and feelings. Yet partly because of his well-known persona and partly because, after losing his voice, he came to express himself on the page, and in the virtual world, more vividly than ever, there was never doubt what he thought and felt about anything. While this was an essential and enviable asset for Roger during his life, it presents a conundrum, in the wake of his death, if you were to ask me if I knew the man. "I hate those 'In Memoriam' pieces in which the writers overstate their closeness to the deceased," Jim Emerson writes in his tribute. So do I. That's why yesterday, I half-regretted posting on Facebook and Twitter, "Hero, mentor, friend, inspiration," knowing that the middle two of those descriptive terms are shaky at best. With Roger, I suspect that's similar for many of us. I could say, "Yes, I knew him," or "No, I didn't," and both answers would be true.
I knew Roger the longest, of course, on the printed page and on the TV screen. Most certainly I caught him and Siskel first on the tube in the late 1970s or early 1980s, before seeking out their written criticism. They were together as they were (I would later learn) separate: clever, funny, passionate, stimulating. I quickly became obsessed, following their show as it jumped from public broadcasting to national syndication enjoying it with my parents when it usually aired on Saturday afternoons. (Once, the indignant eleven-or-twelve year old that I was at the time, outraged that an overlong sporting event had preempted my regular viewing schedule, called the local Phoenix station and shouted, "What the hell are you taking Siskel and Ebert off for?!" and slammed down the phone.) When At the Movies - or whatever it was called by then - became a Disney production, cynics predicted that the show would become a shill for the Mouse. (An editorial cartoon depicted Gene and Roger wearing Mickey ears.) Yet in what would become a recurring pattern for Ebert over the course of his life and career, his partnership with Siskel kept evolving without changing the essence of what made it special.
On one of their many lively talk show appearances during that era, Gene paused in between trading playful barbs to confess that what he envied most about Roger was his writing ability. Gene was right: Ebert was better. And whether he was reviewing Cries and Whispers for the Sun-Times or jousting with cinephiles on CompuServe, the agility of his prose was the same. Many writers have linked Roger's loss of his voice with his use of the Internet, probably because Roger made the connection many times himself. But he had created his own virtual forum at least as early as 1995 or 1996, a pioneer in online criticism and communication. I joined CompuServe briefly around then. Sparring directly with Ebert was fun. With the proto-trolls who prowled the forum spouting venom and lunacy, not so much. After a few months I wrote Roger an email, politely telling him that I was leaving. Unexpectedly he replied: "I'll miss you!" He added that there was "a lot of silliness" online, but that he also found enough value in the virtual realm to stick around.
Stick around Roger did, putting a face to the maxim, "Life is a series of narrow escapes." In what became an intermittent 19-year correspondence, I wrote occasional questions (or assertions) to his Movie Answer Man column (one was a snarky jibe about Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic), and he would occasionally reply, either directly or in published form. (To my delight, a couple of them were compiled in the appendices of his annual Movie Handbook.) More recently, when Roger took to social media - most of our communiques the examples mentioned above - he became a regular presence I cherished. It wasn't because I always agreed with what he thought about movies. As always, he was overly generous with his four-star ratings; although, also as always, he could be surprisingly tough on a critically revered film (see Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather: Part II, Raising Arizona, or last year's penetrating analysis of The Master). Nuances like these invariably escaped the notice of Ebert's own critics. I unfollowed one last year on Twitter after he made sport of Roger's review of The Tree of Life. (This very same individual sang Ebert's praises only yesterday, which suggests that either he was previously unaware of Roger's health struggles or he forgot what he initially wrote.) In the last few years of his life I came to feel that Roger, ironically, was above criticism. Which is not to say that he was faultless. It just means that criticism of the man became irrelevant.
I tried not to bother Roger during his lifetime. Part of me wishes I'd bothered him more, that I'd had the closeness with him that others had. Still, I know I'm lucky to have had the interaction I did. (I met him in person once, at the 2011 Ebertfest. I can still feel his vise-like grip as we shook hands.) I now have colleagues who knew Roger as well: Dave Frasier, a friend and biographer of Russ Meyer; and Jon Vickers, now director of the IU Cinema, whose Vickers Theatre in Michigan is mentioned admiringly in Roger's memoirs. When people ask, "What is Roger Ebert's legacy?" the answer is: We are. All the connections that he forged, in the real world and the virtual one. He was guiding us to each other all along. Leading us to what first brought him and Gene together. To shared enthusiasms. And, in turn, back to ourselves.
I'm not sure if Roger ever put together that the guy who frequented his internet forum and wrote innumerable Answer Man contributions and blogged about Altman and cracked a joke about creationism and gave him an IU Cinema hat and shook his hand were all the same person. But in a way it's fitting, since every time we connected he, while always the same person, was also in important ways (sportswriter, film critic, Russ Meyer acolyte, screenwriter, Paulette, recovering alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winner, TV personality, husband, family man, cancer survivor, social media aficionado, internet pioneer), a very different man from who he was before.
My last exchange with Roger - maybe a year ago, maybe longer - concerned a direct message I sent him on Twitter, trying to explain that all the Craig Simpsons of the past and present were me. "You probably don't remember, but I was on your CompuServe forum," I told him.
He wrote back immediately: "Many moons ago. :)"