The first time I encountered Roger Ebert, I detested him. The second time I encountered him, I liked him even less. In later years, I learned that Ebert's relationship with Gene Siskel progressed the same way: animosity, then grudging respect, then love and admiration. The last two feelings might not have been as strong without the first two; sometimes one intense reaction begets another.
My first encounter with Ebert was in 1992, when he and Siskel panned the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman movie "Far and Away" on TV. Perhaps you've forgotten the movie. I haven't seen it in decades. But to my 12-year-old mind, it was a rip-roaring adventure, complete with romance and a land rush and bare-knuckle fights, and since Ebert directed even more venom at it than Siskel, my 12-year-old mind branded him as The Enemy.
Soon after, I spotted a book of Ebert's reviews at the bookstore and found that he gave a mere two stars to "Edward Scissorhands," my choice then for the greatest movie of all time. I was staggered that he didn't like the bloody, melodramatic ending, which I considered the heart of the movie's genius, and I vowed never to listen to a word he said again.
Somehow or other — not through any conscious decision — I started listening to him, regardless. "Siskel & Ebert" was a popular Sunday night diversion in my parents' house, and as my mind skipped past 12 and onto 13, 14 and beyond, I started to weigh their opinions more closely. Yes, they were right that "Hoop Dreams" was brilliant. Yes, those last two independent movies we rented on their recommendation were pretty remarkable. During my freshman year of college, Siskel passed away, and Ebert was left alone to carry the torch.
At that time, I had a part-time job writing Calendar listings for the Los Angeles Times while an undergraduate at UC Irvine. I kindly asked (which is to say, borderline begged) my editor to let me write an essay on Siskel's death. She asked what my angle was, and I hadn't thought of one. After I stammered for a minute or two, she invited me to run the piece by her when it was ready. Eventually, I found a focus, and practically the minute my article landed on the newsrack, I clipped a copy and mailed it to Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times.
I still have the note he sent me back. It was on a piece of tiny cardboard stationery, with the words "A beautiful piece, Michael. Thanks! — Roger" written in pen. Years later, I had another exchange with him: I sent a question to his Movie Answer Man column asking him to explain the slogan of the Steak 'n Shake restaurant, which he often quoted in his reviews. He responded to my query, and that was the end of our correspondence.
As I write this, with the news of Ebert's death just a few hours old, I don't know which is more remarkable: that he and I had two interactions in the course of our lifetimes, or that we had so few. Like Ebert himself, I despise best-of rankings, so I have no interest in saying whether he was the best critic of his time, or all time, or the second-best movie critic in the greater Chicago area, or any such label. For years, Ebert wrote a series called "The Great Movies," extolling the virtues of films he deemed brilliant, no matter how big or small. So in honor of Ebert's own tradition, I'll just call him a Great Writer.
But I will say one other thing: For the last two decades, no single writer had a more consistent presence in my life than Ebert. He died Thursday, and just as I have every Thursday morning for years, like clockwork, I woke up and instantly checked the Sun-Times' website to see if he had new work posted. He didn't. In recent weeks, he hadn't written much — his latest cancer bout had left most of the paper's reviewing to other critics. But if there was one new piece, I wanted to check it out.
On my honeymoon two years ago, I brought one book: Ebert's autobiography, "Life Itself," which is slightly about movies and mostly about what its title says. I have grown accustomed, in conversation, to calling Ebert a "humanist writer." That was a word he loved; he recently wrote that he liked to call himself a "secular humanist" rather than any religious label. In that book, and in so many of his blog essays, Ebert wrote about some of life's greatest cosmic issues: mortality, legacy, the meaning of memory. It was the same approach he brought to many of his reviews, but now we could read his thoughts unadorned, without a movie to set the occasion.
His essay "I Remember You," which came out last year, is one of the most moving commentaries on death I have ever read. I can recite portions of it from memory and cited it in one of my columns. In another essay on the end of life — a growing preoccupation for him in recent years — he opened with a profoundly calming statement: "I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state."
Here's another sentence from the same paragraph of that essay, summing up his life: "You can't say it wasn't interesting." No, you can't say that. In "Life Itself," and elsewhere, Ebert related the story of a life lived well and intensely: world travels, lifelong friendships, meetings with cultural icons he viewed as average Joes. He commented in a recent blog post that people sometimes asked him to "stick to his knitting" and focus on movies. Thankfully, he didn't heed that advice. Anyone who read his work over the course of a year learned about his politics (very liberal), his regrets and his most cherished experiences.
I don't mean to romanticize him. When Ebert praised a movie, he could have "the soul of a poet," to quote one of the headlines about him this morning; when he panned a movie, you'd hate to be on the receiving end. It took a particularly unabashed critic to assemble a collection of his nastiest reviews in a book titled "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie," then follow it with a sequel called "Your Movie Sucks." And in his writings, he was quick to acknowledge that his life had been lived fully but not always smartly. In "Life Itself," he recounted his struggles with alcohol and his abrasive young-adult personality, among other things.
But even at his toughest, he always felt genuine. You imagined you were lounging in the armchair next to his, either nodding solemnly at his insights or laughing despite yourself at his latest zinger. Reading his work felt like being part of the "endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip" with his now-deceased friends that he described in "I Remember You."
Had I ever submitted my own work to him for a review, I would have approached it with hope and fear; no critic could be kinder one moment and meaner the next. Either way, I would have devoured every word of his feedback. And if I disagreed, well, I eventually came around on "Edward Scissorhands," too.
MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 966-4617.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun