Back when I was a kid, every now and then my Dad would go on a business trip abroad. This was a huge deal back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, since every item coming from the world stretching to the West of my native Poland was seen by our eyes to possess near-magical qualities. The richness of color was matched by a gaudiness of design simply unseen in Eastern Europe. The few candy bars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirts I got from my Dad could have just as well been imported from Oz itself.
One of the last gifts I got from him as a teenager was a CD-ROM called “Cinemania ‘97”, a vast data base of reviews that combined the outputs of Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert in order to create a new kind of interactive movie guide—one that would later be supplanted by internet browsers and IMdB. My Dad knew of my passion for movies (I dragged him out to see them often enough to make him abhor Disney flicks for life). I started devouring the contents of the disc right away: cross-referencing like mad, looking up films that ran on Polish TV the given week, soaking up facts and, last but not least, learning English in the process. Some of the words were so beautiful as mere sounds that I almost regret ever learning their meanings. Peerless, taut, and stellar were only some of them; the old and greasy-looking English-Polish dictionary my folks owned was never far away when I used “Cinemania”.
Of the entries included on the disc, the ones by Roger were the longest and most detailed. Maltin wrote capsules and Kael’s pieces were the edited-down versions of her New Yorker reviews, originally contained in 5001 Nights at the Movies. Roger’s prose was instantly accessible and inviting. He seemed uninterested in infallibility (something Kael would thrive on, clearly having enjoyed publishing what she saw as the final word on her subjects). He came off as a super-knowledgeable guy who happened to want to simply talk movies with you. He would never judge you for botching a phrase in English, I thought to myself—only for being untrue to your gut feeling. I took immediate comfort in that, which later allowed me to make my own tentative attempts at writing criticism in English.
All this was happening as I was undergoing puberty and reaching the predictable geek peak of my life. As we turn into adults and our bodies stop making sense to us (and start offering scary pains and pleasures), it’s common to burrow into the world of one’s passion, with its safety from judgment and limitless stretches of impractical knowledge waiting to be explored. For the awkward, sports-adverse teenage me, that shelter was the movies. Without even knowing it, Roger convinced me it was possible to talk about movies in a way both learned and relaxed—and that was years before I could even see clips of his famous TV show, which never ran in Poland.
I remember having caught The Exorcist on late-night TV soon after I got “Cinemania.” I was still a devout Catholic then—as well as a closeted gay kid living in a country where even sex education classes didn’t go much further than discussing the first (strictly straight) base. I was traumatized by the Friedkin movie, and the scene of Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix sent me into a state of deep shock (there was no Richard Pryor around to dispel the horror with his famed Black Exorcist skit: “Wash your ass, girl! And get that cross outta yo’ pussy!”). Reading Roger’s review that same night, and finding out that he considered it a great movie, was even a greater shock to me. At the same time, that very review provided one of the first, much-needed cracks in my insular religious upbringing: learning that a movie with that much blasphemy could actually be good was a revelation, a hint at a different way of thinking about the world than was prevalent in the environment I grew up in.
Years later, thanks to a recommendation from my mentor and friend, Kevin B. Lee, I became one of Roger’s Far-Flung Correspondents. The depth of the honor is almost too obvious to be discussed here, and it was only enhanced by the fact that I could also work with Jim Emerson, Roger’s closest collaborator and, yes, the editor of “Cinemania ‘97.” I still remember the day I filed my first piece, on Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End, shaking and expecting rejection. Instead, I got the warmest and most encouraging email of my life – and in a matter of minutes, since Roger always responded instantaneously.
As an editor, Roger was endlessly encouraging and just about limitless in his hospitality. As FFCs, me and my great colleagues enjoyed tremendous freedom in choosing subjects and deciding on the best ways to approach them. Be it an ultra-rare Pola Negri silent or the guilty pleasure of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Roger was game—he trusted us that much.
It was that comfort and safety that made me not even think twice, when—upon writing a piece on my childhood fascination with Dynasty for Roger—I suddenly realized that I just wrote a sentence in which I referred to myself as a gay man. I never did that before: lots of my friends knew about me already, but I never once mentioned the fact in print or on-line. I remember staring at the screen for a second, and thinking: “It’s OK, this one’s for Roger.”
Roger’s writing suggested a great wit inhabiting a generous soul—he could be rough, but he was never mean. When he vented frustration with a movie, it wasn’t in order to be hurtful. He could famously hate (and hate, and hate, and hate) a movie, but he would never take a film down just for the pleasure of crafting a retweetable pan.
My one and only time when I spoke with Roger came at EbertFest 2012. He wrote in his pad: "I care deeply for your writing, Michael," to which I replied: "I learned English from reading your stuff!" His answer was pure Roger: "No wonder you use it so well, then." I will never forget that moment.
Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and scholar based in Kraków, Poland. He wrote the first Polish book on Terence Davies and translated J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Midnight Movies” into Polish. He contributes to RogerEbert.com, “Fandor”, “Slant Magazine”, “Hammer to Nail” and many Polish outlets. He has been named the Critic of the Year 2012 by the Polish Film Institute.