Kevin Jagernauth: In the mid-to-late ’80s two things happened that would forever change my life, in ways I probably didn’t realize it at the time: my parents finally bought a VCR and I discovered “Siskel & Ebert At The Movies.” My memory is fuzzy, so I don’t remember exactly when ‘Siskel & Ebert’ became a weekly ritual, but it did, and I followed the show as best as I could, even as its time slot would seem to change week-by-week. But in those two bickering friends, I saw two men who were obsessed and passionate about cinema, and their enthusiasm undoubtedly impacted me profoundly.
In fact, I was becoming an obsessive myself. With a VCR that could record, it suddenly opened a world of opportunity for me. Each week I sat down with the TV guide and a highlighter, looking up the movie listings (particularly the late-night programming) and marking what I needed to record. (Remember when A&E used to show film noir in the early morning hours?) I made tapes upon tapes upon tapes of movies of almost anything you can imagine. And with ‘Siskel & Ebert’ I moved into the age of the DVD and internet, using them as a guide to track down the movies I needed to see. Somewhere along the way I became a cinephile, and there is no question that ‘Siskel & Ebert’ -- with their debates, feuds, praises, and championing of a variety of pictures -- made movies mean so much more to me than I can articulate in any coherent manner. Simply put, they made them matter.
I may not have kept up with him in recent years as much as I had in the past, and perhaps I even took him for granted, thinking he’d be around forever. It really seemed like he would be. I remember seeing Ebert in his later years at TIFF and Cannes, his wife Chaz usually by his side, and I regret not introducing myself and letting him know how important his work is to me. However, Ebert was like a cinematic pen pal, a friend from afar who understood how a movie could get under your skin and into your brain and burrow its way into your heart and never let go. I spent last night at a movie screening, and with the lights down low, the tiny, packed theater became a hushed, communal space of shared experience and feeling, and Ebert, from the first day he sat behind a typewriter, understood why this was special and unique. I hope wherever he is now, that magic is still with him.
Kristen Lopez: I can’t recall the one specific moment where I declared “I want to be a film reviewer,” but I’m damn sure Roger Ebert helped me along, and I’ve always cited him as a key influence. I own and have devoured all of his written works, and every film in his Great Movies series is on my Netflix queue. Roger Ebert taught me to appreciate films, and I’m not sure that without him I’d be the film connoisseur (in my mind, at least) that I am today. Ebert’s Facebook page has been a must-read for me, and I think that’s why his death shocked me so. He recently posted something at the end of March with little indication anything was wrong. I’m shocked and saddened, but grateful to have him as my inspiration. Goodnight Roger, the world is smaller because you’re gone, but better because you were here. You’re one of a kind, and have inspired a young girl to believe that her pen can make a small difference. Rest in peace.
Charlie Schmidlin: I spent the majority of my teenage years in Chicago at the film institution Facets Multimedia, where every visit to their offices also took me past a framed B&W picture of Roger on the wall inside. The picture grew to be a consistent, comfortable presence in my time there, just as Roger’s tremendous output -- from “At The Movies” to his illuminating and personal blog entries -- similarly found its way into countless lives.
Another charming aspect to Facets as a venue was its main theater, lined with seats demanding a clever placement strategy -- or else a three-hour film would advise your back as much by the final reel. When I commented on the seats to Roger, who attended and taught at the cinema often, he recalled when “[Facets co-founder] Milos Stehlik was hiding his screenings in a former church. You brought your own pillows; the pews were hard.”
His straightforward response hinted at a shared history that I was only beginning to comprehend, and a tactile, grounded perspective that always made his work so meaningful. Most of all, it served as a gentle reminder to move past any qualms about the screening environment, and to simply enjoy what we as an audience patiently come to see -- the art of cinema itself.