Roger Ebert at Ebertfest in 2007 (Seth Perlman )
Like so many who grew up in the 1980s, I came to know Roger Ebert through film, and film through Roger Ebert.
From the childhood moment when I first attained dominion over the remote control and VCR — and plenty of times when I didn’t — I would watch, record, and re-watch his on-air reviews with Gene Siskel. Saturday night television to a 10-year-old in those days offered some pretty compelling stuff — “The Facts of Life,” “Hunter” and other untold gems.
But to truly know what was worth paying attention to on the screen — and, really, to know how my friends and I should spend our Sunday afternoons that followed — there was “Siskel & Ebert and the Movies” and “At The Movies,” a kind of cultural bat-signal that told us not only what to think about movies but what movies were worth thinking about.
If “Raging Bull” was the best film of the decade, then that was a movie I needed to rent right away and form an opinion on; if Ebert deemed a movie overrated or underrated or somehow misjudged, well, it needed to be seen and evaluated too.
Though as a boy I didn’t realize it, there was little distinction between pedigree or genre in the mix of movies reviewed. An R-rated comedy would be followed by a Disney film followed by an Oscar-worthy drama, all contained neatly in those 23 minutes. And to the better, too. Years before the iPod, Roger Ebert reflected a sensibility and instilled a mindset of finding quality (or ineptitude) wherever it may lie.
Ebert’s wit, sparring ability and, of course, trademarked thumbs were his calling cards. But his idea of giving every movie, no matter its provenance, a fair hearing — loving or eviscerating only after careful consideration — was both a good life lesson and a sound professional preparation.
As I started to write about film, Ebert was turned, suddenly, from a childhood abstraction into a real-world presence. He went from beacon to (daunting) colleague, from Roger Ebert to Roger — one word, no explanation required. Unexpectedly, here was a man I might be sitting next to at a festival screening, assessing and weighing movies with. It was geeky — and I suppose professional decorum says this shouldn’t be revealed — but the first few times it happened I felt a small thrill. I was more excited to talk to him than to some of the people on the screen whom I would later interview. There would always be another actor to come along. But there was only one Roger Ebert.
Six years ago this month, I conducted an extensive interview with him. In a side room at the Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where his one-of-a-kind Ebertfest is held, he offered his thoughts on the movies that were playing that year (“La Dolce Vita” to “Perfume” to his own "Beyond The Valley of the Dolls"), on film criticism, on mortality, on the world at large.
The amazing thing about it was that Ebert couldn’t speak. He’d had surgery to remove cancerous cells a number of months before and had been robbed of the use of his vocal cords. But he had a ready solution: I’d ask a question, he’d respond with some telling gestures and would quickly write his thoughts in a notebook. Then he’d tear out the pages and hand them to me and wait for me to reply.
On it went, for more than an hour. It was, bizarrely, one of the smoothest interviews I’ve ever conducted. It was also one of the most insightful — Roger had more to say than most subjects who have full use of their larynx. I held on to those pages for years. Roger Ebert transformed himself into a robust Web presence in this digital age. But somehow those pieces of paper contained all you needed to know about him.
In the years since I’d continued to see him at festivals, stopping to say hi before an anticipated screening at Cannes, or meeting his eyes to get his reaction — no words necessary — after the movie was done. I’d often have talks with Chaz Ebert, his wonderful wife and a person who in the past few years had stood in for him at a festival when he couldn’t make it. We’d talk about the future of their TV show, which they were continuing even after syndicators had foolishly dropped it, about the festival at hand and, occasionally, about Roger’s health. Like him, she didn’t shy away from acknowledging illness, but she didn’t want to dwell on it either. What was the point when there wasn't much that could be done? Besides, there were movies to talk about.
In its obituary, the Chicago Sun-Times recalled that Roger was fond of saying that “No good film is too long. No bad movie is short enough.” He accomplished an amazing amount in his 70 years. And yet that life wasn't nearly long enough.
I most recently saw Chaz Ebert at the Spirit Awards in February. She talked about a filmmaking grant that she and Roger had created that would be handed out that day, a prize that would award tens of thousands of dollars to an aspiring filmmaker. As she told me about it, I couldn’t help suppressing a small smile. Yet another young person was getting turned on to film by Roger Ebert.
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