Roger and me: Reflections on a kindred spirit

By Carroll Trainum
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Our shared passion for film brought Roger Ebert and me together, first on his TV movie review shows, and then throughout our 10 years of interactions through the Virginia Film Festival workshops.  It’s sad to say that it took his death for me to fully understand our connection and the lessons I learned from him, both during the movie seminars and a long car ride together.

Before he came to Charlottesville, my impressions of Roger Ebert were based on his TV appearances on Sneak Reviews, and later, Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies.  On the surface, he was the portly guy with a mop of hair and coke-bottle glasses sitting in a fake movie balcony, discussing movies with a bald guy in a sweater vest (Gene Siskel).  Oddly, this was enough to get me to watch PBS on a regular basis.  Eventually, they made “two thumbs up” a part of the national vernacular (and a trademark.)

What kept me coming back were passionate discussions about film between two guys who just loved movies–except for the ones they didn’t (the title of one of Ebert book’s came from a statement made on the show: I Hated, Hated, Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie). They not only reviewed new movies from the standpoint of whether the average movie goer should spend hard-earned bucks to see them, they also gave viewers the sense that we, too, could be film critics.

But it was Roger who really won me over. He walked into a movie with an open mind. When they reviewed the Talking Heads 1984 concert documentary, Stop Making Sense–one of my favorite concert films ever–Siskel “didn’t get it.” Roger’s comment was: “I walked in not knowing anything about Talking Heads, and walked out a fan.” Another time, Siskel was incredulous that Ebert enjoyed a film they were reviewing. When Gene tersely stated: “I can’t believe you liked this movie,” a livid Roger blurted out: "You liked Halloween III and I am never going to let you forget that!”

In 1992, our paths crossed.  Roger Ebert was a featured guest of The Virginia Festival of the American Film.  I volunteered to assist Mr. Ebert (“It’s Roger”) during his “Shot-By-Shot Workshop” on Citizen Kane. It was the first of 10 workshops we would do together, analyzing films by showing them on disc to an audience and stopping every few moments to question, comment, or discuss what we saw and felt. The workshop films ranged from Sunset Boulevard to Pulp Fiction, concluding in 2002 with Chinatown.

My eyes, and those of the attending participants, were opened to viewing film in a different way. Everyone who opened their mouths to share brought something to these discussions, which Ebert called “democracy in the dark.” And that’s what he wanted.  As I wrote in a 2007 essay about Roger, I e-mailed him for his thoughts on the workshops. His reply: "What I hope you realize is how much I learned during those sessions.  Remember, we all did a lot of talking! 

When I was asked to do a commentary track for Ozu's Floating Weeds, I thought– he never moves his camera! What can I say? So I did it as a shot-by-shot [workshop], and the audience inspired me with plenty to say, as you can hear on the Criterion [DVD] edition."

He was passionate about film (and life), and he was accessible, two distinguishing features for which he will be remembered. Both of these  attributes were on display for workshop attendees, especially if they arrived early or stayed late.  As people filed into the auditoriums, he would chat, offering anecdotes about his encounters with stars, and recounting their insights. He also talked about himself, telling stories of attending double features as a child growing up in Urbana, Illinois, or as a student, haunting movie theaters in Paris. Occasionally, he would talk about the trials and tribulations of being a film critic–the problem of writing in the dark was solved by a pen with a built-in light.

Despite being a public figure and married, he often led a solitary life. Sitting in a dark theater, even when having a shared experience with an audience, is still solitary. Writing is a solitary endeavor, too. This Pulitzer-prize winning film critic was a prolific writer, turning out thousands of columns, over 15 books, six screenplays, and cranking out a blog right up to the days before his death. 

I picked him up at the Richmond Airport for the Festival in 1996.  Of course we discussed movies, but we talked about literature and writing as well. On writing, he said: “Carroll, everybody thinks that you sit and wait for the ‘Muse’ and then write. It’s just the opposite; you sit and write, and then the Muse appears.” That worked for him for years, and it's proven true for me too.

In 2002, around his last visit to Charlottesville, he was diagnosed with cancer.  It slowed him down but he kept watching and reviewing movies.  In 2006, he lost his jawbone to cancer, which ended his large appetite for food. I remember the tale a fellow volunteer told me. Roger was entering what was then called the Bailey Art Museum at UVA for a Festival opening night reception. The volunteer greeted Roger at the door and welcomed him to the Festival.  Roger shook hands and thanked him for volunteering, saying that film festivals depended on fine volunteers such as him or they couldn’t take place. Then he said, “Where’s the food?” Each Festival, Roger could be spotted at the Woolworth Lunch counter on the Downtown Mall; he said it took him back to his youth.

Roger also lost other appetite to cancer–speaking. Despite a special computing device that allowed him to use his old voice (put together by a Scottish firm that scoured hours of his old TV tapes) he admittedly was never the same. As he himself said in his new “voice,” he lost the great timing and nuances of his original voice. 

That was our great loss as well, because he was a terrific story teller, speaker, and interviewer. Among the many on-stage interviews he did live at the Virginia Film Festival were with Robert Mitchum, Fay Wray, and Anthony Hopkins. He had crack timing, as demonstrated when he announced that he was cutting back from annual festival visits to every other year to maintain domestic harmony. When someone in the audience asked who would take over the shot-by-shot workshops, another person called from the back: “How about Gene [Siskel]?”  Ebert’s face turned into a fiercely blank stare and froze, as if to say “No you didn't.”  The crowd went nuts.

Even with cancer, Roger Ebert stayed public. After Siskel died of cancer in 1999, Ebert's review program still aired with various other critics. His newspaper reviews were still syndicated all over (including in the pages of this paper), and his movie reviews were read by others on his TV show, and later with his synthesized voice.  He made occasional public appearances, using prosthetics over his lower face. Also, he became a regular blogger, a habit that kept him going when most would quit.  There was one blog entry that connected us in a way that I had missed when I worked with him.

In 2009, Roger Ebert wrote a blog entry about AA. Roger felt that someone had publicly disparaged Alcoholics Anonymous, and he wasn’t having any of it. He wrote one of the most telling and honest accounts of his own past, and one of the most accurate descriptions of what AA is about, and how it worked for him.  This from a man in the public eye for so many years, a man who felt that being sick was a part of life and shouldn’t be hidden, whether it was a person consumed by cancer, or consumed by alcohol.

Touched by his enthusiasm for film, his reviews, his writings, and/or his wit, there has been an incredible outpouring of praise and memories of Roger Ebert, on TV, in print, radio, and on the internet. Maybe you’re one of those unlucky people who have no idea who he was. Maybe you’re a lucky one like me who shared his enthusiasm for the art of film, another soul who thinks life is better because of movies— the way they can make us think and reflect on life, or just get away for a little while.

Roger’s last words in his final blog were: “See you at the movies.” 

I always will, Roger.

Carroll Trainum, a Charlottesville native, still has hopes for the Boston Red Sox, still volunteers for the Virginia Film Festival, may still be seen behind the counter at BreadWorks bakery, and still loves his wife Barbara—whom he got to know through First Night VA.