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In which Roger Ebert almost gets me fired

On unlikely friendships, meeting your heroes, and avoiding yourself on the internet

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Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 03 2020

11 min read

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In the mid-2000s, I struck up an unlikely relationship with one of my heroes. It wasn’t something I planned or asked for. It just happened.

My first full-time job was at a newspaper in the Inland Empire, a dusty section of Southern California that was close enough to Los Angeles to keep reminding me of how far away I was from Los Angeles. I had gotten a job as a copy editor, based on an internship at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that had gone swimmingly. I had genuinely loved that Milwaukee job, the people I worked with, and the work I did.

It only took about a month for me to realize the new job wasn’t for me but also that I could coast through it — a dangerous combination for a trans girl in her early 20s, who is still convinced if she just waits around long enough, someone will give her the job of her dreams. (Hey, it had worked so far.)

The copy editor was there to put the finishing touches on a story, so by the time a story got to me, it was largely ready. The kinks had been ironed out, the flaws in the reporting had been squashed, and the words were mostly in the right order. My job was to check for spelling and grammar, to make sure the story conformed to our newspaper’s house style, and to “package” the story. This meant that I put a headline on the piece and made sure it had enough images, or had subheads in appropriate places, or whatever. My final job was to be the “last line of defense” against something terrible (see: obscene or libelous) getting into the paper, but across the four years I spent copy editing, I caught exactly two stories I had to send back for major repair work. Like I said, by the time it got to me, it was usually in pretty good shape.

So I was bored out of my mind. In Milwaukee, copy editors picked up stories from an ever-diminishing pool of them, so a fast worker could plow through a dozen or more stories in a night, especially if she had a specific subject area interest. (I knew a ton about TV and movies and, thus, could clear out many of these stories much more quickly than some on the team.) At the new job, we were handed four or five stories to edit per day, a total that I could get through in two or three hours — four if they were really long and involved.

This left a lot of time for goofing around. I goofed around in two primary ways. The first was posting on an internet forum dedicated to movies, where I was one of the more prominent posters (because I typically spent 12 to 16 hours a day snarking on there). I fancied myself a quick wit, and most of the social relationships I had outside of my marriage were on that site. I quickly rose through the ranks and became a moderator.

Needless to say, my bosses weren’t too happy with my online habits, a thing one of them pointed out to me by asking, “In between posting online, do you think you could maybe edit some stories?” That confrontation chilled me to the bone, which brings me back to meeting my hero. Because the other way I ended up goofing around was reading stories that came in over the wires, especially movie and TV reviews.

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I had been a fan of Roger Ebert for most of my life at that point. Siskel & Ebert at the Movies was one of my first experiences with “real” criticism, and one of his home video guides — really just a collection of his most positive reviews — was worn out from over-reading. His style, which blended the critical with the personal and even political, is all over the writing that I’ve done, and when I go back to read particular reviews I loved, I’m amazed how closely my early criticism, especially, aped his work. (Not that this should be surprising. A whole generation of critics grew up in his shadow!)

So when I suddenly got access to Ebert’s reviews early and often, I started devouring them before they saw print. Ebert was a clean writer, and he had a fastidious editor working with him at the Chicago Sun Times. But no writer is perfect, and Ebert let a few mistakes through here and there. Inevitably, when one of those mistakes would pop up, I would be there to catch it.

The first of these had to do with — of all things — which character Rachel McAdams played in the Rob Schneider vehicle The Hot Chick. Ebert’s review of the later McAdams vehicle Red Eye originally said, incorrectly, that McAdams played the best friend of the titular hot chick when she, in fact, played the hot chick herself, who swapped bodies with Schneider. I wrote to Ebert’s editor to point out the mistake, saying that, gee, I had watched The Hot Chick on cable (for some reason) and knew McAdams played a different character and maybe it could be fixed.

The email that came back to thank me for the correction was swift — within the hour, as I recall — and even more notably, it was from Ebert himself. He’d gone back to his notes from the Hot Chick screening and discovered that, yes, I was correct. He made the fix to the Red Eye review and even added in McAdams’s billing order in Hot Chick to make his original point, which was that her rise to stardom had been stratospheric. (You can read the corrected version here.)

Now I had Roger Ebert’s email address. As a wannabe critic, this was my time to shine!

Except not really. I mostly continued to fact-check Ebert’s reviews, and he mostly continued to be polite and happy to be corrected. He came to recognize my (old) name, and we had a couple of friendly emails in which he recognized that I, too, loved to watch movies. But over those last few months of 2005, fact-checking Roger Ebert reviews was a good way to (technically) do work while not actually doing work, because we so rarely ran his reviews in our newspaper.

Was this a friendship? Nah. But it was definitely the kind of relationship Ebert cultivated with young writers, many of whom he gave their big breaks. I have so many friends who had similar relationships with the man, sending him emails and being surprised when he responded with warmth and kindness, then striking up a friendship. Many of those friends of Ebert’s paid his kindness forward. One of them (Matt Zoller Seitz) gave me my big break.

But I didn’t want to test Ebert’s patience. I was fine with the limits of our relationship, which extended to a time when he’d messed something up in a review but the Chicago Sun Times team caught it, so he emailed me jokingly to say they’d gotten to it before I could. I didn’t realize this was a lifeline I was holding onto, but it was. The job wasn’t going well, my marriage was struggling to reconfigure itself to fit the California sun, and I felt a growing unease with my body that I treated by eating endless amounts of fast food. I became fixated on earthquakes and the peak oil theory, which held that the apocalypse was nigh. My personal writing cratered. I was depressed, I now realize, but I didn’t know how to say that.

And here was Roger Ebert, unnecessarily kind to a kid he didn’t need to be kind to, finding a way to make that kid feel welcome in an industry where Ebert was one of the kings. I am surely remembering our relationship as more significant than it was — probably it was a half-dozen emails back and forth all told, and I don’t have access to those old work emails to check — but it loomed large in my brain. I wasn’t sure I could do it (what “it” was, I didn’t yet know), but Roger Ebert seemed to think I could do it.

This made it all the more disconcerting when in December of that year, I logged on to the movie forums to a frantic series of private messages from the site’s administrators asking for my phone number. They needed to talk to me. They needed to figure out what had happened.

They needed to figure out why Roger Ebert wanted me fired.

Important programming note: Sorry, folks, but that’s all you get of the Ebert story for free! If you want to read the rest, you can donate any amount of money to the IndieGoGo campaign for the second season of my podcast, Arden. The full version of this story lives on the backer page there. Give us just one American dollar and the thrilling conclusion of this story — which features one of my biggest professional fuck-ups, my salvation by a consistent film Twitter villain, and the last time I ever talked to Roger Ebert — can be yours.

And just what is Arden? You can read more about the show here, but suffice to say season two will tackle rural America, trans issues, asexuality, big agribusiness, and waterfowl — among many, many, many other things. (I should mention that we’re a comedy? Also a mystery? Also a romance? As befitting a project I’m working on, we are a confusing jumble of tones.)

You can donate here. As mentioned, if you donate any amount, the second half of the above story is yours. But we have all kinds of cool perks that you might want to check out in addition to the Ebert tale!

Read me: Pretty much all of Ebert’s work is available for free online. You should read his stuff, even when you disagree with him. He’s one of the great prose stylists in all of criticism, and I love how his writing breaks down into distinct periods. In recent years, I’ve been learning to appreciate the writing from the last decade of his life, when he started to go a little easier on movies, as if he saw every new film he got to see as a gift. Here’s just a masterful snippet of his review of (the tremendous) Synecdoche, New York:

Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die. Synecdoche, New York follows a life that ages from about 40 to 80 on that scale. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director, with all of the hangups and self-pity, all the grandiosity and sniffles, all the arrogance and fear, typical of his job. In other words, he could be me. He could be you. The job, the name, the race, the gender, the environment, all change. The human remains pretty much the same.

Here is how it happens. We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes, American Girl dolls, a handful of rice, sex, solitude, a trip to Venice, Nikes, drinking water, plastic surgery, child care, dogs, medicine, education, cars, spiritual solace — whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call "me," trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things.


In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation — but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I'll do it again.


Watch me: I deeply love watching old Siskel & Ebert clips on YouTube. I’m particularly fond of their outtakes, in which you see the friendship that grew between the two men and eventually became so central to their lives. Notice how they can’t keep from laughing with each other in the clip I linked above, early enough in their relationship that there was surely still some testiness.

And another thing… I mentioned above, offhand, that Matt Zoller Seitz gave me my first major break, and the piece that he commissioned for his site, The House Next Door, turns 14 years old in June. It is, fittingly, on the women of Deadwood, two subjects that would occupy my critical brain in the decade-plus to come. It’s very rusty and shaky — and I remember Matt rewrote it heavily — but I think it still holds up, and you can read it here.

This week’s reading music: “Heaven” by Talking Heads

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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