Thursday, April 04, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Like so many others of my generation and younger who write about film, Roger Ebert inspired me to do it too, so I can’t help but feel kind of stunned at news today of his passing.  Growing up I followed his TV show with Gene Siskel through its name alterations (SNEAK PREVIEWS to AT THE MOVIES to SISKEL & EBERT), channel changes (PBS to syndication), and fluctuating airtimes (middle of the afternoon to dead of night).  I was curious about movies, and these guys had a lot of enthusiasm for them.  Good grief, I even copied the format of their show with the one I’ve been co-producing since 1997.

With his annual MOVIE HOME COMPANION compilations and online reviews, Ebert’s writing was more accessible, which is why he played a greater role than his co-host in shaping my ideas of how to watch, think, and write about films.  Ebert’s work was also accessible in the sense that he was welcoming in how he conversed with his audience about what he thought was worthwhile.  He was a cultural educator who didn’t speak above or down to his readers and viewers.  With his seal of approval, whether a thumbs up or four stars, he encouraged moviegoers to stray outside their cinematic comfort zones.  Following his tastes often led to rich discoveries, and not all of those rewards had to do specifically with movies.

In less than two weeks I’ll be making my thirteenth consecutive trip to Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  When I started going in 2001, the attractions were the opportunity to watch movies all day for a few days in an enormous old theater, sit in on Ebert’s introductions and post-film discussions, and see (and possibly meet) the filmmakers.  The movies and guests are still a big part of the draw, but I’ve also returned year after year because of the community around the festival.  At Ebertfest I’ve become friends with people from around the country and the world.  Coming back to this event every April can feel as much like a family reunion as a film festival.  That warm vibe around Ebertfest seems by design and strikes me as being as representative of who Ebert was as anything in his writing was.

I didn’t know Ebert, although I did meet him on a few occasions.  It’s virtually impossible to have attended Ebertfest and not have encountered the namesake at least once, whether at the Virginia Theatre, the Illini Union, or elsewhere around town.  It was no secret that Ebert was fond of Steak ‘n Shake and had established it as a traditional meeting spot for festival guests.  (In 2003 I saw him at the burger chain late at night with Bertrand Tavernier, Paul Cox, and others.)  After the last screening in 2011 I met up with some other Ebertfest attendees at the Steak ‘n Shake on Neil St. Eventually Ebert and his wife Chaz showed up and joined us.  Ebert surely loved being able to program his own festival--what critic wouldn’t?--but in this setting you could also see that he was thrilled to be able to bring people together through a shared love of movies.  As a longtime fan, I’m glad I had the chance at that moment to thank him for the inspiration he has been to me as a writer and for the event I’ve looked forward to every April.

There’s much about Ebert as a writer to admire and aspire to, but if I could emulate him in any way, it’s in the enthusiasm, generosity, and fearlessness he demonstrated. His work ethic never failed to impress, especially when he had health problems. When he was able to host Ebertfest, there was no one who seemed more excited to be there than him.  He used his platform as the best-known film critic of his time to encourage and champion writers as well as the films he felt deserved more attention.  He set a remarkable example of how to face illness.  I feel like I should find some grand way to tie all this together, but really, all that I can say is that I’ll miss him.

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