Roger Ebert recently commented on one of my comments on his journal over at http://www.rogerebert.com/, saying that he's read this blog, liked it, and bookmarked it, which I mention a) because it was incredibly nice of him to even take the time to read this humble little assemblage of words and b) because it meant a lot to me. More than I expected.
His words, I mean.
The words he wrote about this blog, the words he writes now, and the words he wrote years and years ago, in the annual collection of his movie columns from the Chicago-Sun Times that I used to receive for Christmas each and every year all through adolescence.
I had always loved movies, and I had always loved writing, but it was Roger Ebert's writing about movies that opened up a new way of thinking and feeling about both subjects.
And I use those words deliberately.
My household only received the local paper, The St.Catharines Standard (delivered just before supper each and every night, ready to read right after school and just before dinner), and it had a decent-enough movie reviewer, the local film-prof from the local university, but it was Ebert's books that showed me that one could think about, write about, and feel about movies in a whole new way, one that was not about academic analysis or snide, sarcastic one-liners, but something deeper, that 'deeper' thing that all teenagers yearn for and look for and hope to find sometime soon. You could use films, Ebert was hinting, to learn about life. About yourself. About your friends, and family, and the world around you. If you watched them carefully enough, you could even access parts of yourself that had otherwise remained humble and hidden. He altered something for me, in other words. Helped me arrange a new alignment within myself.
(At first I read only his reviews about movies I had actually seen. Then I soon realized that I was interested not so much in Ebert's opinion itself, but in the way that he wrote, the simple cadence and rhythm that I quickly realized was not so simple at all, and so I started to read the reviews of films that I hadn't seen, too, just to listen to the workingclass music of his words. Ebert himself is fond of saying: "A movie is not what it's about, but how it's about it." His writing helped me unearth another truth: "A piece of writing is not what it's about, but how it's about it.")
He's been on Letterman and Leno, Oprah and Conan, but it was always his writing that stuck to me. It was spare and accesible and emotional. I liked that part the most -- the emotional part. Siskel once said that he was the reporter and Ebert was the columnist. I admired them both, but behind Ebert's words you could somehow sense its heart, and hear it beat.
I met Mr.Ebert a few times in Toronto about ten, eleven years ago, once at a book signing at Theatrebooks, and another time during the Toronto Film Festival, where I ambushed him at the Varsity Cinemas as my friends and I waited to watch Emilio Estevez's film The War At Home, asking if he had any advice for a young writer.
I used to lay sprawled across my bed on lazy, snowy Sunday afternoons on gray December days and slowly, methodically flip through his books, re-reading the reviews a dozen times and more, checking with a blue pen all the movies I had seen in the indexes at the back, and now knowing that my writing in this little space has been read by this same man, who taught me a lot about movies and writing and life...
It feels like an odd little circle has been completed, one that began at the age of ten or eleven and continues in its erratic arc and orbit to this very day.
Roger Ebert helped teach me: that linguistics aside, aesthetics aside, perception aside, opinion aside, even skill aside, in the end all good writing is simply about heart. If you can't hear its steady, persistent beat behind the words, then your original intent will flatline fast.
If it ain't got heart, it ain't got anything.
Oh, and that advice he gave me, at the Varsity Cinemas?
And so has he.