Andy Ihnatko remembers Roger Ebert, The Presence
One of my favorite restaurants in the Boston area is a deli that serves a style a cuisine which they do not refer to as “Jewish soul food.” But they definitely should.
When you open the menu and scan the lists of appetizers and entrees, you hear a soothing, heavily-accented female voice that says it’s such a shame that nobody’s feeding you properly at home, and it’s a disgrace that you’re all skin and bones, and you should put away your coat because she’s going to fix you a plate and you are to eat and not argue.
I’ve been visiting this restaurant at least once a month for well over a decade. I like to bring out-of-town friends there, just to see their reaction (initially intellectual, and then deeply emotional) to the food.
The first time I brought my friend Roger there, he was engaging in one of his periodic jags into vegetarian eating. He had no ethical opposition to meat as far as I knew. It was just an exercise in discipline and healthy eating.
Roger unfolded the menu and held it up for closer inspection. He was silent for a longish time.
When he lowered the menu, he was smiling.
“I think tonight, I’m not a vegetarian,” he said.
Let this tale be just one of the many, many stories about how smart Roger Ebert was.
It will also illustrate the effect he had on people, and his fundamentally kind and generous nature.
Roger ordered the meatloaf. I’d ordered that same dinner myself a dozen or more times. A nice little loaf of spiced meat with a peppery sauce, balanced with a starch and a vegetable.
But I was surprised when Roger’s dish arrived from the kitchen.
It had been…plated.
Instead of being efficiently arranged so that the three elements of the entree respected each other’s personal spaces on the dish, the meatloaf had been sectioned into thin slices. The slices were fanned on the plate. A spring of green whatsit serving as an artful garnish and a slice of thingummy, twisted into a clever shape, delivered a color contrast to the browned meat.
They never did that for my meatloaf. Not before, not since. I mention this merely as a data point and not as the seed of a longstanding and seething resentment against this fine eatery.
We were having a great conversation about pretty much anything other than technology or movies — stuff about our daily lives, really — when I felt a sudden displacement of air to my left.
It was A Publicist.
She was so very sorry to interrupt and she hoped that Roger was enjoying his dinner but she was with this independent movie that was playing just two blocks away at the nonprofit moviehouse and she’d heard that Roger was in this restaurant and she hoped that he could take some time to stop in and see the film because the filmmakers were right there and they know that this is exactly the sort of film which Roger would love to support, and she was sorry to just butt in but there was a screening in progress and another showing would be starting in just an hour but she was sure that the audience would understand if they restarted the film for Roger, and…
I promise you that this really happened, including the “to hell with the paying customers, we’ll restart the movie just for you” bit. And she had walked right up to Roger and started talking to him without any preamble, totally ignoring my presence.
I honestly could understand how her excitement caused a loss of blood flow to the Politeness centers of her brain. She was a publicist. It was her job to occasionally commit grave sins on behalf of the movie she was hired to champion. You actually want someone like this working for you.
Still: only two people have ever done that to me.
I forgave the other person. It seemed fair. He had almost singlehandedly turned Apple around from the brink of bankruptcy and made it into the business, technological, and cultural powerhouse it is today. This publicist had not done anything like that, to my knowledge. The edge of my mouth involuntarily raised itself into a little smirk that I quickly erased and hoped she hadn’t noticed.
Roger was kind and patient. He told her that he probably didn’t have time to see a movie tonight. But he accepted a card with the particulars of the film and wished her luck with it, before he gently called her attention to the two articulations of meat in front of him. One was his dinner, and was getting cold. The other was a living, sentient being with whom he desired to resume a conversation. She bowed and scraped in retreat.
The chef came out to chat before we left. Roger signed a menu and chatted about movies with him for a bit.
Truth be told, I planned to show Roger that theater anyway. It’s the only historic Art Deco moviehouse in the Boston area. The cavernous main screening room was gorgeous even before its later restoration.
Plus, I think Roger’s plan all along was to slip into the screening unannounced and then quietly stand at the back, to see if this was a flick he needed to know about without needlessly raising the filmmakers’ hopes or interrupting the experience for the rest of the audience.
I wish I could end this scene by writing “…And that’s how Roger came to discover and evangelize the fantastic work of a fresh new director by the name of Ramin Bahrani.” But I can’t recall anything about the movie and if Roger saw anything in those five or ten minutes that merited a followup, he never told me about it.
I did learn that if you’re Roger Ebert, your face is a free pass into any movie theater in the world. The manager of the theater almost asked me for seven dollars and twenty five cents but managed to catch himself in time. Second lesson: the Roger Ebert Free Movie Aura dissipates in magnitude at an inverse-square relationship with distance, so you would want to follow Roger closely rather than respectfully.
Onward to another place that I knew Roger would enjoy. Roger had taken me to some of his favorite independent bookstores in Chicago, near his vacation house, and around the University of Colorado campus. I was pleased for the opportunity to show him one of mine.
He actually caused a bigger fuss at the bookstore than at the movie theater. And no wonder: anyone who reads Roger appreciates him as a writer. Not specifically as a film critic and certainly not as a Famous Person.
A very happy store manager returned to his little podium after an excited conversation with Roger and then he raised a microphone.
“We have a surprise guest tonight!” he announced over the loudspeakers. “Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert is in the store, and he’s agreed to sign copies of his books for everyone!”
This is a great bookstore so of course they had plenty of copies of just about everything of Roger’s that was in print. I think he signed and sold most of them. All the while, he entertained everyone with conversations about movies, entertainment, and Gene Siskel’s obsessive competitiveness.
Eventually, the crowd dispersed and allowed Roger and I to engage in a leisure activity that we dearly loved: wandering through the aisles of an unfamiliar bookstore carrying a gently-swelling stack of books.
It was a great night, and it shows off just a fraction of why Roger was such a magnificent specimen.
First: all right, I still have no earthly idea how that publicist learned that Roger was having dinner two streets away. The Roger Ebert Free Movie Aura dissipates with distance, but the Roger Ebert Fame Aura only increases in amplitude. At least to the freakishly-sensitive inner-ear bone structures of the movie publicist, blessed by evolution with the ability to sense access to an international audience just as keenly as the Yukon Snow Hawk senses the presence of white mice hundreds of yards below.
Let’s forget about the publicist. Roger’s work created a great deal of respect but even a greater amount of genuine love.
I saw this sort of reaction time and time again during my years of hanging out with Roger in public places. There is something of the film geek in almost everyone, and thus almost everyone was able to see in Roger something of a kindred spirit. Not a critic who deliberates and judges from a lofty perch far removed from the dopes who paid to get in, but a mortal whose shoes were stained and sticky with the calcified snacks and beverages of decades of movie theater floors. Just like any other film fan.
When he argued (and yes, he would certainly do that) he knew that his authority came from the hundreds of movies he watches every year, not from his Pulitzer or his position in the industry.
Roger’s fans didn’t just ask him what he thought of a certain movie. They wanted to tell him what they thought of it as well. Roger was certainly pleased by the attention, but not to any kind of degree that trailed arrogance and ego in its wake. I think Roger was more pleased to know that despite his fame, despite the respect and awards he had earned and won, his fans still thought of him as someone whom they could stop in the street and talk movies with.
You should also observe from this story that Roger was universally kind and indulgent to strangers in my presence. And under severely trying circumstances.
I’m only famous in the closed-bubble way that Anne Bancroft’s character describes in “To Be Or Not To Be”: “I’m surprised you’ve never heard of my husband,” she tells the Nazis’ newly-installed military governor of occupied Warsaw. “In Poland, he’s world-famous.” I’m not recognized, or Tweeted about, or asked for photos unless I’m in a closed environment where the Nerd to Normals ratio is unusually high. When people approach me, I consider it a novelty, not an intrusion.
Roger was legitimately famous. If I didn’t know Roger, good God, I wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to stop him in the street and talk movies with him, either. So I never got annoyed when these things happened. Instead, almost every time, I would just step aside and fill my time by wondering if I could deal with that kind of a routine loss of privacy without going completely buggo. Or dumping a plate of heavily-sauced meatloaf onto a publicist’s head.
Roger experienced this every hour of every day when he was out in public. The fact that he was so consistently pleasant and engaging is a sign of a remarkable man. Those who were courageous enough to walk up and say hello to him walked away feeling glad that they’d taken advantage of an opportunity to learn about how much better the 3D and interactive version of Roger was over the kind they were used to. He could have sent them away feeling foolish for having intruded.
Those who where drunk enough to shout “Ro-GERRRRR! Heyyy! _THUMBS UP!!!!!_” from across the street got a smile and a “thumbs up” in return.
That takes actual effort. Roger didn’t need to make that effort, but he did.
I can only speak about the what I saw during the times we were in the same city and hung out.
Few people will ever be as famous as Roger Ebert was. But even those of us with 80 Twitter followers and last appeared on television when a local news camera panned the crowd at a chowderfest last Fourth of July weekend have the same kind of responsibility to each other.
You’ll never know how much courage someone in your office had to muster up to walk up to someone they don’t know very well and say hello in the breakroom. You’ll never know how important it might be for you to say “It’s fine…take your time” when the person in line ahead of you is having trouble getting the card-swiper at the register to accept their worn-out credit card. You’ll never know how self-conscious someone is about how they speak or how they present themselves, and how much damage a simple, well-intentioned but thoughtless quip can do.
Roger was an incredible force when he sat in front of a keyboard or in front of a camera and produced something for a worldwide audience of millions. I also knew him as a man who appreciated the responsibilities of those little face-to-face interactions.
“I met Roger Ebert once. He was pretty awesome.” I’m seeing that all over the message boards today. Each of those interactions was quickly forgotten by Roger but formed a lasting memory for that person. He cared enough to make that memory a good one.
End of Part 1. Tune in shortly for Part 2: “Roger the Consiglieri.”
Photo by Bob Kotalik