I had watched, listened to, and read Roger Ebert since I was 9 or 10 years old. The PBS show Sneak Previews featured him and co-hort/nemesis Gene Siskel debating the latest releases with great urgency. I had never seen anything like it. The first critic I remember watching was Herbert Swope on the local news, but he came off as a stuffy fart. Siskel and Ebert were similarly caustic and cutting, but great fun and quite endearing. It was my introduction to considering movies as more than simply diversions. I loved the opening to Sneak Previews, with its spirited scoring and movie house slapstick. Watching the video on YouTube gives me warm feelings. Heck, just seeing the spot for WTTW Chicago at the beginning almost makes me tear up right now.
Especially since Mr. Ebert joined his old partner in that aisle seat in the sky last week. Siskel passed away in 1999, ending an era of the "Thumbs up, thumbs down" duo who went on to become cultural icons. It was crushingly sad. These guys were largely responsible for encouraging my interest in film and the critical thinking I would increasingly employ in my viewing. I had also begun to purchase Mr. Ebert's annual almanac of full length reviews (prior, I had exclusively digested Leonard Maltin's capsule reviews in his annual) and felt a connection to the man. His "voice" was so distinctive that it would continue right to his announcement, published a few days before his death, that he was taking a sabbatical due to his continuing failing health. I wanted to respond to his reviews and blog entries many times over the years. I did toss off a few comments on his Facebook page.
Crushing sadness hit me again when I heard it. I was sitting in a lecture at the convention when I received a text from the New York Times announcing the terrible news. To say it was hard to focus on audiology and statistical models after reading that is a given. I felt that awful, hollow pit. It cast a pall on what was a very productive and enjoyable week away. Folks always speak of how they feel they "know" a famous person. I felt that way with Roger Ebert, and often wondered, as I watched a film, what he thought of it (I tried to avoid reading his reviews ahead of time). Now I will forever wonder what he would've thought of all those films to come: good, great, and unspeakably bad. It will leave me feeling sad, but grateful that such a creative and influential man was known to me.