Sunday, April 7, 2013

Roger and Me

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

My discovery of Roger Ebert was a by-product of my hyperactivity. I was one of those kids who could not tolerate his sugar. There’s plenty of Super-8 footage of me hopping around and being a physical nuisance. I moved in fast motion, like Benny Hill minus the chicks and Yakety Sax. However, if my attention were engaged, I became focused with laser-like precision. Time, and my spazzing, stopped, and my universe became that which captivated me.

From an early age, the easiest way to get my attention was to tell me a story. I lucked out by being born into a family of storytellers. Since my Mom couldn’t play Scheherazade 24 hours a day, she geared my focus toward books and her first love: movies. I also lucked out by growing up in the NYC area, where movies were a constant on the independent channels. TV may have rotted my brain, but it saved my kneecaps. For hours, I’d watch movies, and my Mom would tell me useful information, knowing it would glue me even further to the screen. I owe my movie love to my mother, and by extension, I owe my love of Roger Ebert to her as well.

Roger came into my life on a boring day in the mid 1970’s. I was dancing on the ceiling in my room when I heard Mom’s voice bellowing through the house:

“Hey, Odell,” she called from the living room of the first apartment I remember inhabiting, “there’s a show about movies on. Come watch it.”

I found myself in front of the TV, where two men sitting on opposite sides of a movie theater balcony were talking about a movie. I don’t remember what that movie was. I do remember the more they talked, the more hypnotized I became. This was on PBS, so there were no commercials to break the spell. We had a black and white TV, a detail both Siskel and Ebert would have appreciated (they once did a black and white version of their show). In fact, I didn’t know what color Roger’s hair was until 1980 when we got a floor model Zenith color TV. TV type mattered not; I was hooked from that first show.

Roger and Gene looked like normal people—like newscasters to my young eyes—so I took what they said seriously. I loved when they fought, secretly hoping that Gene would  leap from his chair and send the duo rolling down the aisle and over the balcony. (Years later, The Critic made my dream come true.) I loved that Roger talked with his hands, like the folks in my home state of New Jersey. And I was far too excited when they had the “Dog of the Week,” complete with onscreen dog, or (if memory serves me correctly) when a skunk accompanied their bad movie pick of the week. Gene once selected a film where “the ads say you’ll see a man turned inside out.” He showed the poster, which was indeed a man turned inside out. I’ve often wondered where my love of trash came from, and now I think I have my answer. Cute animals plus killer commentary begat a fetish for the forbidden fruit of bad film.

Around this same period, I got the unusual notion that I wanted to tell stories myself, to not just engage in the fine oral tradition but to write them down as well. I can blame another PBS show for that—Zoom. Film became entangled in that desire when I learned that both Siskel and Ebert wrote about film in addition to discussing it over the airwaves. Since I lived In  the NYC area, it would be years before I read anything by either of them, but that didn’t stop me from devouring every single piece of film writing I could get my hands on, from Archer Winston to Kathleen Carroll to Pauline Kael to, bless his bitchy, venomous heart, Rex Reed. I was addicted to movies, addicted to writing, and my addictions would only get stronger.

Fast-forward to my adolescent years. Roger and Gene (in color) were on Channel 11, the same channel that satiated my love of Abbott and Costello, Douglas Sirk and Yankees baseball. Roger had also become syndicated in the New York newspaper, so I could finally partake of his prose. It read as if he were in the room with me, having a conversation. Roger Ebert was educating me about foreign films, arty-fartsy fare and blockbusters. But he was also telling me a story. There was no stuffy pretense to his words; he wrote in a relaxed, engaging style I wanted to emulate. This was odd at first, since I usually sided with Siskel. But great writing doesn’t need to be agreed with to be admired or even cherished. I had found my writer idol.

Plus, Roger had won the Pulitzer, an award I kept seeing on the boring-ass books they gave us to read in high school. For reasons still unknown, I’ve always wanted to win the Pulitzer, which led me to my first actual interaction with Roger Ebert.

Roger’s mastery of the Internet and social media should have come as no surprise to anyone. He was on CompuServe back in the day, an accessible critic holding court over a forum. Drumming up my nerve, I posted some questions to him. I still have his response printed out. One of the questions was “What do you get when you win the Pulitzer?” Roger responded “you get $1,000, a plaque, and when you die, your obit will say ‘Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Odie Henderson died today.’” The only Pulitzer I’ll ever get came from Roger Ebert’s CompuServe nominating committee. I can live with that.

I never dreamed I would one day write for my hero. The closest I had come before July 26, 2011 was The Movie Answer Man column. Like the Great Movies series, Roger made an institution out of this sidebar, a movie-based “advice” column. His occasional one-line answers were legendary. One day, I got a CompuServe message from him:

“You’re going to be in this week’s Movie Answer Man column,” he wrote. “Please send me your location.” 

I screamed like a reject from Bye Bye Birdie

Roger published my words, and those of numerous others, in his book Questions for the Movie Answer Man. He didn’t just belong to his readership; his readership belonged to him too.

Roger and I both acknowledging our love of trash

In the documentary, Sleep Furiously, one of its Welsh subjects says “you’ve got to have characters to make a community.” Roger clearly had this idea in mind when he created Our Far-Flung Correspondents. A motley crew of great writers from all over the world, the FFC’s became fixtures on his site, proving Roger’s theory that the cinema was universal and crossed cultural lines. It was yet another way Roger snuck in educational value, hiding it like broccoli under a ton of melted cheddar cheese.

He also created The Demanders, where my set and I wrote about Movies on Demand. When that experiment ran its course, Roger welcomed us into the Far-Flung Correspondents family, proving once and for all what the world already knew: My home state of New Jersey is a foreign country.

Demanders, Assemble!

To the FFC’s and Demanders, Roger was more than a film critic. He was a pen pal too. We all wrote him for advice, for discussions, and for what we affectionately referred to as “shameless self-promotion,” that is, news of our work at our other writing venues. Of that last item, we almost always would get the same response from our mentor and boss:


That one word response was always such a generous gift. Someone of Ebert’s stature not only liked your work, but was willing to do a little “shameless promotion” for you. He also always thanked us for our work, supplying a supportive comment about his enjoyment of what we had written. I can’t begin to explain how it made me feel.

Our correspondence spanned almost three years of E-mails. I cherish every word, from his advice on dealing with work politics, to his paragraphs on what it was like to read reviews of his book, Life Itself, to the lovely few sentences he crafted for my mother. I rarely wrote him about film. Instead, I told him about the crazy incidents that happened In my travels for work. He encouraged me to write him about this, and his response was always the same: “This is insane. You should blog this.” He’d comment and ask questions—forever the journalist—and for that moment, I felt like Roger Ebert just belonged to me. He had that affect on everyone with whom he corresponded.

My last correspondence with Roger was him suggesting a movie for me to review. He was very good at matching his writers up with material, presumably to see our takes on it. Of a PBS nature doc he assigned to me, he wrote “If anybody can make raccoons interesting, it’s Odie.” “What in Sam Hell am I going to do with raccoons?” I asked myself. But it was a challenge, and I couldn’t disappoint him. He brought out the best in us all.

I only met Roger in person twice, both times at EbertFest, the festival he created to bring filmgoers from all over to his hometown to experience and discuss films. (He had a habit of promoting that unity amongst filmgoers and film lovers.) “I tweeted you today,” he wrote on his pad when I nervously sat next to him. “It’s an honor,” were the first words I spoke to a man who had been a fixture in my life since I was 6 years old. Truer words were never spoken. 

I was at work when I heard the news. I was in the middle of doing a demo, an appropriate detail since Roger liked my tales of software demos gone wrong. I managed to finish my presentation, presumably because I was in shock. I still am, but I’m sustained by the outpouring of love I’ve been seeing on Twitter, in print, and from my fellow FFC’s and friends.

My heart is broken, and will remain that way for some time. In hindsight, it feels as if Roger had meticulously planned his exit, leaving on his own terms and with memorable final pieces. He wrote a beautiful journal entry coining the phrase “leave of presence,” and his final review was of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. Malick’s films wrestle with the huge concepts of life, death and nature, and Roger was a huge fan of the director’s work. The timing is almost too coincidentally perfect, or maybe it’s just my grief trying to find logic in the unexplainable.

I do not have a poet’s soul. I am an Irish wake kind of guy. Remembrances for me are never funereal. I prefer to tell you the fun things I remember about those whom I’ve lost. Roger knew and embraced my refusal to be too serious, and his support of me and those like me provided validation and confirmation for us to find, use, and be proud of our own voices. I guess that is what this ramble of a piece is.

RIP to my idol, my hero, my mentor, my friend. The wound of your loss will heal, but the scar will always be tender.


Anonymous said...

...tender with our loving memories of this one passionate movie lover who reached to us all with generous friendship.

Thank you for your sincere and entertaining post, Odie. I hope there will be the Pulitzer prize for foul mouth, which should be made of soap considering its standard.

P.S. I must confess that I loved your piece on "Everybody Hates Chris". I enjoyed its whole four seasons in early 2010; like "Arrested Development", it is a sitcom I'm willing to revisit, although my character is rather closer to that dry narration by Ron Howard.

Unknown said...

Kurtis O said...

Just finally got to this. Really lovely read. I must admit, my fave parts really had nothing to do with Ebert:

"I was dancing on the ceiling in my room when..."

"...bless his bitchy, venomous heart, Rex Reed."

"...proving once and for all what the world already knew: My home state of New Jersey is a foreign country."

Very funny and heartfelt as always.

SM Robinson said...

Beautiful story about your passion for film, and the grace of Mr. Ebert! ~Stacey Marie Robinson