Last weekend, the BBC published an article titled “How to write the perfect obituary” following the brouhaha around the New York Times’ recent obituary of Yvonne Brill. The Times piece had been deemed inappropriate and sexist for kicking off a rocket scientist’s post mortem with her apparently exemplary domesticity, including her “mean beef stroganoff,” and the BBC talked to a number of writers about the potential pitfalls of writing obituaries. It was a fluffy weekend piece, and I would have moved on were it not for one particular detail.
Among the writers interviewed was Harry de Quetteville, the Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor. Apart from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Telegraph, arguably London’s greatest daily, was Roger Ebert’s favorite newspaper, and he particularly relished their obituaries. When I saw de Quetteville’s name, a momentary lapse in consciousness almost inspired me to compose a new e-mail to Roger. The subject would read “The BBC on how to write the perfect obituary; they’ve also talked to the Telegraph’s obit editor,” include a link, and end with “/eom.”
You see, “/eom,” i.e. “end of message,” was an abbreviation that Roger had particularly taken a shining to. He used to make a point of reading all of his emails, as well as the countless comments that his blog posts would elicit, so he had once emailed a large group of his correspondents urging them to submit links to him in a message’s subject line, and to finish it off with an “/eom” so that he would know the body text was empty. To the point. That’s the way he liked it. “Don’t beat around the bush.” Say what you’re going to say. Then “/eom” that baby”! His customary reply to link submissions was a concise “Tweeting! /eom”.
And tweet he did. He was against the very idea of Twitter at first, famously declaring “I will never be a twit” in a blog post dated March 28, 2009. Yet less than seven months later, he joined Twitter, the final one in a long list of media that he mastered over the course of a 42-year journalism career, by announcing proudly to the world: “This just in: I am a Twit.”
In hindsight, Twitter was the last hurrah of Roger Ebert’s illustrious life. His position as the chief film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, but, more importantly, his film review show with the late Gene Siskel, had already turned him into a household name. But on Twitter he gained a further following his sincere, whimsical, and witty musings on life, the universe, and everything. Many have commented on how his passions outside of the cinema, which he extensively chronicled on his personal blog starting in 2007, introduced a more personal insight, but his film reviews had always reflected so much of his interests, passions, and idiosyncrasies. He only publicly admitted to being an alcoholic in 2009, yet hints of his ailment had been scattered throughout his writing for decades. He didn’t have to acknowledge his agnosticism or his admiration for Darwin: it was evident in his reviews. He loved Shakespeare and was a life-long Anglophile, two further fascinations he frequently detailed in his criticism. But blogging helped clear up the bigger picture. He enjoyed waxing lyrical, without having to worry about pitches, deadlines, or word limits, and relished the interactivity.
In fact, interactivity had always played a huge part in his modus operandi, even before he took to Twitter or Facebook—even before the rest of the world really took to the Internet, in fact. He was an early adopter of e-mail, and had his own forum on CompuServe, which he embraced fully. Right around the same time, his Video Companion was included in the Cinemania CD-ROM, which surely played a further part in introducing his writing to a younger audience. But even before the ascendancy of new media, Ebert always communicated with his fans. His weekly Movie Answerman and Film Glossary columns accepted submissions. He taught courses on film, and started his own film festival, the annual Ebertfest at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He simply loved to engage in conversation with the thousands who venerated him in whatever shape or form that tit-a-tat would take. He was a genuine renaissance man, and he adopted new challenges wholeheartedly.
As I wrote that final sentence in the previous paragraph, I got curious and checked RogerEbert.com to see how Roger rated 1994 Penny Marshall comedy, Renaissance Man. Not highly, it turns out, and after finishing off his pan, I followed the links provided within the review itself to Roger’s notices for Dead Poets Society, Private Benjamin, and, finally, Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. This led to my getting lost down the rabbit hole of Roger’s reviews of other Shakespeare adaptations, and by the time I realised I had a piece to finish, an hour had gone by, I had read or re-read over fifty pieces, and was yearning for more. That was the great power Roger had over his readers: he made the reader curious and interested. He had a deliberate writing style, and, as Glenn Kenny observed, despised bullshit: he WAS a schoolboy AND he knew what he liked. He was a man of ideas, some of them very complicated, but he always managed to get them across simply, and without condescension. His prose was simple yet true, and in a profession that more and more frequently values the convoluted and fake, it had its fair amount of detractors. They were wrong, of course, and Roger’s continuous popularity was a testament to his endurance.
Roger was also a friend. But as time passes, and as people ask me, friends as well as the press, about the sort of friendship and relationship I had with him, I find myself hesitant to answer the question. Roger was a very private person about subjects he wanted to keep that way, but, generally speaking, he was very open. He was a friend to all who came knocking. I exchanged daily emails with him, wrote for his website, attended his film festival, visited his house. He made me feel welcome, but this had nothing to do with the length or depth of our acquaintance or the fact that I was one of his Far-Flung Correspondents. He was just a welcoming sort of guy, which is what I always tried to communicate to people who asked me for his email address. “You don’t need my introduction,” I’d tell fellow writers. “If anything, he probably knows your work already.”
It’s been five days since the world found out about Roger Ebert’s death. Writers have been competing in the eloquence of their tributes, and even though I am not one to judge the particular way a person mourns, I have found certain aspects of this deluge rather off-putting. I simply think it an incongruent way to mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man who despised cant and abhorred schmaltz (though he enjoyed having fawning admirers). Just look at his obituary of Studs Terkel, his hero: “He was the most widely and deeply loved man I ever hope to know.” Roger knew the meaning of the phrase “too much of a good thing.” He was a measured man, who kept things simple. He loved the movies, he loved his wife, he loved his family, and he loved his friends. He was a kind and generous soul, who lived a full and happy life. He will be missed. Every day. /eom
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog. Occasionally, he updates his personal blog Cerebral Mastication. In addition, his writing appears on various film and pop-culture sites on the blogosphere. He also believes in the transformative potential of Twitter.