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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