Roger and Me

Roger Ebert receives the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

version of this Brick is published at

Roger Ebert accepts NSNC Lifetime Achievement Award 25 June 2011
Roger Ebert accepts the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award 06-25-11. Photo, by Cynthia Borris, of Ebert’s projection on a screen. He spoke via Skype from Chicago to NSNC meeting in Detroit.

DETROIT, Saturday, June 25, 2011 — Following is the acceptance speech of Roger Ebert for the NSNC’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. Ebert’s physical condition prevented him from accepting in person, but he “spoke” live via Skype from his home in Chicago, using an electronic voice from his Macintosh. He then answered three questions submitted beforehand.

Ebert provided this transcript:

“By appearing this way on new media, I feel, in a way, I am letting down the team. But [conference host] Brian O’Connor and I have spent some time rehearsing with Skype, and I hope this will be an acceptable substitute for the glory of print. So anyway, hello in Detroit!

“It is my great honor to accept this award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I grew up regarding newspaper columnists as the most noble and brilliant of human beings, and nothing I have seen since, has caused that opinion to change. It is our job to take the events of our time and consider them with intelligence, and wit. In these days of  trashy celebrity, gossip which threatens to overwhelm the media, our job is more important than ever. So on this day when you meet in Detroit, I thank you. And I salute you.”

“Question. Has the Internet and the explosion of online movie and review sites diluted or enhanced the influence and stature of film critics?

“My answer: I think this is a golden age for film criticism. The internet provides film critics with a free and universal outlet for their work, and some amazingly good writing is being published. To be sure, there’s also a lot of junk, but the internet has brought a new generating of critics into prominence, and allowed more length and depth than general-circulation newspapers were able to allow.”

“Question: Most people just want to go and see a “popcorn” movie for fun or a date, and just want some entertainment. Do the opinions of critics really matter since so few moviegoers rely on those opinions for guidance?

“My answer: Well, we’re talking about two hours out of their lives. The ads for every movie promise them two hours of entertainment. If they go without reading reviews, it’s a crap shoot. Also, a good critic should be fun to read just for the writing, whether you’re interested in the subject or not.”

“Question: What’s the best thing you’ve written in your life; what is your least favorite of your works?

“My answer: To answer that question would require a better critic than me.”

As the 2010-12 NSNC president, I introduced Roger Ebert at the NSNC’s 35th annual conference. The awards banquet was at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It hurt that it was at night and the galleries were closed. I’ll have to come back to see its great collection. We ate in the Diego M. Rivera Courtyard and held the presentations in the DIA’s lecture hall. It was the first time in a while that I have seen electronics used in a presentation where nothing crashed or anything else that should be preventable. Komputer kudos to conference host Brian O’Connor, personal finance editor and columnist at The Detroit News, and the DIA’s technical staff — and Ebert, as he had half the responsibility to make sure everything went smoothly.

So, I’m at a lectern (the DIA’s is a work of art, a mass of twisted steel, perhaps old unpainted car parts, perhaps car factory parts). The house lights are down. There’s Roger projected on a lecture hall film screen on the little stage, to my left. He’s in a chair in a small room, perhaps his home office. His MacBook camera is recording him. There’s no camera on our side, an unnecessary complication that might create a breakdown, O’Connor says. There’s fewer than a hundred of us in the audience.

Yes, this felt weird to do. I’ve been on Skype four-five times (in the house!) so it’s still new to me, but in this circumstance, in front of a lot of people and standing in between cables where one klutzy step could … and last, it was upsetting to see Roger Ebert look so frail. He’s fine I’m sure, but in the fisheye lens of the laptop his face and the hand with which he gestured distorted his features some.

Of course, the introduction came first, but for this column, it makes more sense to have the star at the top, and the preliminary below.

* * *

Ben Pollock at Detroit Institute of Arts 06-25-11.
Ben Pollock at Detroit Institute of Arts 06-25-11, introducing Roger Ebert (on nearby screen via Skype) to accept NSNC’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Bonnie Squires

Thank you, Brian.

It’s a great, it’s a humbling honor to introduce Roger Ebert. You just turned 69 a week ago, last Saturday, right, if Internet Movie Database is correct? (Ebert gives a thumb’s up and a smile.) And you’re in that aisle seat still, writing up movie reviews as well as personal and global reflections on the online Roger Ebert’s Journal.

Roger has been the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, and his reviews are syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, the first film critic to be so honored.

Let’s note here that Roger was 32-33 years old, and how extraordinary that is, as well.

The following year, Roger and the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel began a long run of reviewing movies on TV with Sneak Previews, and a couple of title changes followed. After Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert had other co-hosts until illness deprived him of the ability to speak. In the last year, he and his wife began producing yet another iteration of the program.

Ebert is the author of more than 20 books, yes, all about movies.

In 2010, however, he published The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker. I thought it would be so cool, earlier this week, to buy the book during my two-hour layover at O’Hare — they’d have it, right, maybe a local authors shelf? — but alas the newsstand chain and bookshop chain outlets in two wings don’t stock cookbooks at all, being an airport. I love rice cookers, and I’ll be going to Amazon for the book next week.

The columnists are honoring Roger Ebert because personal journalism takes many forms.

When Roger Ebert writes about, say, True Grit, a movie set in my birthplace of Fort Smith, Arkansas, (which by the way was filmed nowhere close to the town in either version) you first learn what the movie’s about and whether it’s something you’d want to see. Roger always is clear and his writing style is deceptively simple. It is as deep as some Film Quarterly academic study, but writing conversationally is, as we columnists all know, the greatest sleight of hand.

On the way through the piece, you hear about Roger’s heart. He wants plain entertainment if that’s what the particular movie is after, and he relishes the complexity if a film moves toward helping its audience understand its world, and themselves. What columnist wouldn’t like to be able to write like that?

That leads me to a personal note.

On my trips home to Fort Smith from college in the late 1970s then trips home from newspaper reporting jobs in Texas, I got to know my father better. I was a young adult and better able to appreciate Dad. Dad’s once hidden emphysema finally was slowing him down.

On, I believe, Saturday nights on the local PBS channel, we watched what then was called Sneak Previews. Mom would pipe in that she thought you were better looking and, I swear it, “more masculine,” than your sparring partner and friend, Gene Siskel. (Roger looks surprised then grins, and I say to him, “I’m serious. She really did.”)

Dad passed away, and as Internet access simplified, sir, I began reading your Sun-Times reviews. You didn’t just sit in that proverbial aisle seat, but you reported. You interviewed actors and directors, you observed movies being made on location or on sets, you did research on history and technology to explain movies. You earned that Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

As your health made that terrible turn, you kept your stride, just shifting. You added a blog for memoir and also movie-related thoughts that didn’t quite fit into a review format. That Roger Ebert’s Journal is accepted by all generations is an incredible feat for the beginning of the 21st century.

Roger, you should know, if you haven’t checked it out, that our Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award has yet to go to a journalist at the end … of whatever. … We seem to catch them about two-thirds of the way through their careers. Andy Rooney is still muttering about the way things are now, right? and he won the Ernie Pyle eight years ago.

This award thus is encouragement to keep up the good work for more decades — with reviews, the journal and photography.

Hats’ off to Roger Ebert, and let’s show him dozens of THUMBS UP.


My favorite Ebert YouTube clip by the way is “Siskel & Ebert Go Door to Door with David Letterman in New Jersey, Summer, 1994,” and Ebert wrote about the experience that someone has posted. I made a note of the video’s URL in case we needed it as entertainment while a connection was retrieved. As noted, that didn’t happen.

• • •

Note, April 2013: Concerning Roger’s passing on 4/4/2013, I posted this reflection, “Regarding Roger Ebert.”


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