My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
The outpouring of emotion from the internet when Roger Ebert’s death was reported confirmed a suspicion I had been nursing for some time: other people knew this guy was good.
That seems like a weird thing to say – Ebert was the most well-recognized movie critic ever, and his name is now practically synonymous with the form – but for most of my life, my enjoyment of Ebert’s writing was an intensely private thing. Only a few short weeks ago, a friend who I’ve known for almost 15 years googled my name and expressed surprise that it came up in the comments section of Ebert’s blog. Apparently over those 15 years I’d forgotten to tell him that I regularly visited and commented on the blog. I never talked to that many people about him, because really, how many people do you know who think movie reviews are an interesting topic of conversation? And my interest in his writing and reviews wasn’t ever spurred on by anything so community-minded as a newspaper. I would occasionally read his foreshortened reviews in the Friday edition of the Arizona Daily Sun, but I discovered Ebert online, and that’s where I went every week for a long time, stretching practically into the present, to learn about the week’s new films. I first discovered his website when it was part of the CompuServe web service (for those of you younger than 20, Compuserve was a mid-market dial-up internet service, basically the Carl’s Jr. to AOL’s McDonalds, and back in those days each web browser came with its own personalized content), and was part of a generation of budding cinema fans who only knew Ebert by his online presence. I knew of his TV show, and somehow knew that he used to host it with Gene Siskel but now hosted it with Richard Roeper after Siskel died (I have no idea how I gained this knowledge), but the shows were 30 minutes long and only covered 3-4 movies, while on the website there were generally around 8 reviews every week, and I could read them in about 20 minutes. It took me a long time before I realized what these facts meant about the writing- how informative and easily-digestible his writing style had to be to make that possible.
The only thing I appreciated less than Ebert’s craft in the early days was his style. For a long time, I thought I was reading Ebert’s reviews for informational purposes only, trying to figure out what movies were worth seeing and which ones I might want to skip. After a while, I realized many of the reviews were worth reading in their own right, especially the one-star reviews that were all pretty funny. Soon after that, I ran across a one-star review of an Adam Sandler movie, which any adult would expect, but as an 11-year-old Adam Sandler fan I took more along the lines of a personal betrayal. I mentally argued with every one of Ebert’s points, and wrote my own counter-points down in an approximation of a logical argument, and sent it to the e-mail address on his website. As far as I know, he never read it. Several years later, I would realize that what I had done was called “critical thinking,” and by simply confronting opinions different from my own, I had spurred on my own ability to think. I don’t know when I started to realize what a truly great writer he was, or how all of his reviews contained at their core a sense of basic decency and goodwill toward the filmmakers, or how rare both of these qualities were in your average film critic.
I eventually started reading critics besides Ebert, but any time I wanted to read some movie reviews, I would always start with his website. Knowing that there won’t be more than one or two reviews left is…strange. As if a house I used to live in had burned to the ground. You always just expected it was going to be there, but eventually it wasn’t. I sent him some more e-mails, and left posts on his blog when I had a response to one of his entries, just like thousands of others. Just like thousands of others, I never got a response. It was always an unstated ambition of mine to write something he would have to review. I guess I should have been more forthright in stating it, as I haven’t ever been intimately involved with making a film. I suppose there’s still time.
Occasionally I’ll run into another film nut, generally on the internet, who has whole passages of his reviews memorized, and can remember specific star ratings he gave to movies, and the film nut’s always as embarrassed as I am to have that junk up in my head, but I think we’re both grateful that it’s up there, too. If nothing else, there’s a hell of a lot of good writing impressed into the folds of our brains that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for this odd and singular obsession with a famous film critic which, I am beginning to realize with this outpouring of sadness, was not so singular, nor, perhaps, so odd.
The truth is, I’m probably not in the best mental state to process this right now – I’m in the middle of a ton of work that I’ve been putting off too frequently these last few days, and I need to buckle down and get it done – but I felt like I should at least say something.