Roger Ebert

Dear Roger…

I never went to film school. Never took a class in journalism either. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t explain the virtues of good mise en scene, or how to spot a split infinitive. I’ve never had it drilled into my head what is and is not good filmmaking technique, nor what makes good prose. If I could go back in time, I would change all of that, but of course, I can’t.

It was always alright though: I had you.

You were the teacher who never knew I was taking his classes without paying tuition. You were the teacher who may not have even realized how many pupils he had. In a way that seemed effortless, you taught me and many like me, how to watch, how to write, and how to live. I never turned in my homework, and I didn’t always do the reading, but you never kicked me out of class, and never stopped trying to help me understand the greater picture.

When I first started feeling an attachment to film as an art form, you were there to guide me. At the time, you had Gene along with you, and I was able to see just how much more interesting and enlightening a conversation can be when the participants disagree. I’m ashamed to say that I’m still trying to master the art of respectfully disagreeing; It’s hard to admire the speaker but disagree with the statement, and harder still not to take things personally. However, that’s what makes you the sensei, and I the grasshopper. Those arguments I heard late on Sunday nights so many years ago will stay with me, and hopefully I will someday ace the final for “Respectful Discourse 101”.

While I feel like I still have so much to learn, I understand the art of cinema as well as I do today largely because of you. It was you that pointed me towards FARGO, BIG NIGHT, and THE SWEET HEREAFTER. It was your commentary track that helped me get a better understanding of CITIZEN KANE, and also your commentary track that allowed me to find new joys in CASABLANCA. Week after week you kept adding to the syllabus, creating a neverending course-load for the brave. For our bravery, we were rewarded with perspective, clarity, and joy. It was almost as if you understood that the best way to get your students to do the homework was to assign them something that never seemed like homework.

But now class is over.

This morning I realize how much I still have to learn, and how much more I want to ask you. For instance; how in an age of cynicism and snark did you find a way to sidestep all of that even when you were nailing a film to the wall? Or why am I told not to use personal pronouns, and yet when I read your work, I see so many pieces where you’ve related films back to your own life? Whether it’s allowed or not, it’s something I’ve clung to. Your teachings have prompted me to link my reviews back to the people who love me, hate me, have come into my life, or shuffled off out of it. Your style has prompted me to write about my past, my present, my successes and my mistakes. You’ve shown me that it’s OK to see slivers of myself on that big silver screen, and that others will too. In a way, recognizing these moments is what elevates film into something greater…something that allows us to identify the best and worst things about ourselves and move forward.

So perhaps that’s what I should do – identify and move forward.

My name is Ryan Michael McNeil, and even though we never met, you have had a deep an impact on this grammatically incorrect scrawl I call “my writing”. Because of you, I understand that it is more important to champion something wonderful than it is to decry something terrible. Through your works, I have discovered that art is static and humanity is fluid – and for that reason, it is important to reconsider one’s position and reassess every once in a while. Most importantly, your passion – your stance of wanting to love what you are shown from the moment it begins – has rubbed off. I come into every film with the enthusiasm of a child at a Saturday matinée, hoping for adventure, love, thrills, and happily ever after.

This routine and discipline has given me more in five years than any hack critic deserves. There have been moments when I’ve convinced myself that someone like you would look down on someone like me and call me out for my lack of skill, understanding, or both. However, such ideas were always dispatched when I saw how deeply you wanted the cinematic conversation to continue…and the would-be writers to keep offering up their words.

So Roger, as I close my textbook and fret about the fact that class is over, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. It’s because of what you taught me about film, about writing, and about life, that I do what I do day-in and day-out. I will try to make you proud by being both intelligent and humble in my work, and by looking for joy and intelligence in the work of others.

I did have more to say professor, but my dog ate the rest.


see you at the movies,