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Essay: Roger Ebert's prophetic advice to a young journalist

Posted 6:54am on Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

He could not have known the prophecy of his words.

I wrote to Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, as I suspect many aspiring critics and writers did over the course of his nearly 50-year career, in the spring of 2001. I was about to be a junior at the University of Oklahoma, cranking out bite-size film reviews for the campus paper, The Oklahoma Daily.

I wasn't expecting a reply when I fired off an email to his "Answer Man" address with some late-night gibberish about realizing my career goal, and asking for any pointers he might have.

But four days later, Ebert's reply came: "There are not that many full-time movie critic jobs. I'd aim at 'entertainment journalism' and move sideways."

At the time, it was a welcome, if unsatisfactory, answer. I suppose I was expecting him to offer some kind of eureka moment that would guide my decisions going forward.

Looking back, the man damn near predicted the course of my journalism career.

My first love, since my earliest memories, has always been movies. Even the worst movies. To a kid living in the middle of flat, conservative Oklahoma, movies were an escape, a window to the world that could take me anywhere.

And Ebert's writing, along with ex- Tulsa World critic Dennis King's, indelibly shaped my moviegoing perspective growing up in Broken Arrow.

As high school wound down and I began to contemplate what came next, the answer seemed logical: try to make a living writing about movies. So I went to college, intent on minoring in film so I could build up a background befitting a critic.

I spent all four years at OU on the entertainment desk at The Oklahoma Daily, before segueing into a job at the Oklahoma Gazette, where Ebert's advice to "move sideways" first came in handy. It was a review of the forgettable Adam Sandler vehicle Little Nicky that convinced then-editor Susan Grossman to give me a shot as a calendar editor.

Over time, I climbed the masthead to become entertainment editor, overseeing film coverage for the Gazette. It took a few years, and wasn't always smooth sailing (the cliche of the irascible critic does hold some truth to it), but I was elated to be, in my own, small way, a member of the film critic community.

When the time came to take the next step, the Star-Telegram had an opening for a music critic. Again, I "moved sideways" and occasionally found an opportunity to write film reviews, cherishing the assignment every time I'd get one.

I know there will be a mountain of tributes and remembrances of Roger Ebert in the coming days and weeks, as there should be. But writing this seemed like the only appropriate way to mourn someone I've spent all of my life reading and watching.

The news of his death last week, at age 70 from cancer, hit me in a way few public figures' passings do. I'm genuinely heartbroken to lose someone I admired as a writer, and as a moviegoer. So often, meeting people you look up to can be a disappointing experience -- we're all human. It's rare to encounter someone who actually lives up to your expectations. Or surpasses them.

I will miss many things marked by Ebert's passing: the end of an era of film criticism that will never exist again as it did in his heyday; the loss of another great writer who battled back against the Internet's gaping maw and did so without sacrificing his talent; the silencing of a humble, skilled artisan whose love of craft shined through every word he ever wrote.

Above all, I will forever be grateful to the small bit of guidance he once offered a total stranger. I'll keep doing my best to "move sideways," and savor the thrill I have always felt and still feel seated in a movie theater as the lights dim and the screen brightens. Rest in peace, Roger.

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