Friday, April 5, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

I spoke to Roger Ebert one time in my life.

I had stopped to visit Don Handsome at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2001, as part of my drive cross country to live in Los Angeles. My exact date of departure from Boston (where I had been collecting myself for a few weeks after leaving my apartment in New York) was actually determined by this visit, because this visit was purposefully scheduled to fall during Roger Ebert's annual Overlooked Film Festival, which takes place in Champaign every April. The festival was in its third or fourth year, and continued through til last year, by which point it was known simply as Ebertfest. I imagine a 2013 installment would have transpired if Ebert hadn't been dealing with the return of his cancer -- which only was just making news yesterday.

I attended each day of the festival before continuing west, watching such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jesus' Son, Such a Long Journey, Maryam, Songs from the Second Floor, Panic, Everyone Says I Love You, and surely one or two more than I am not remembering now. Bill Paxton spoke, so I must have seen one of his movies as well. Ebert himself spoke before each film, introducing the movies and sharing a little piece of his great critical mind with us.

During rare down times between screenings, Ebert made himself available for activities like luncheons and book signings. I didn't go to any of the former, but I did attend the latter, equipped with my copy of one of Ebert's books. (I could look up the title, but it doesn't really matter.)

Don and I waited in line for maybe 30 minutes (I don't really remember) before we got up to the front.

Now, since this is a remembrance of one of the foremost critics in film history, you probably think I'm going to regale you with the touching story of how Roger took an interest in my critical aspirations or shared an attaboy or some priceless words of wisdom with me.

Um, no.

When I got to the front, I told Ebert that I was also a critic. This was 12 years ago, when not everyone with a keyboard and a mouse and an internet connection could make such a claim.

Ebert's response?


It wasn't quite as emotionless as that, and in fact it did contain an obligatory note of albeit disinteresed recognition that this was something he was supposed to be impressed by. Well, he wasn't impressed.

That's okay. Ebertfest was a busy time for the man, and he was probably exhausted from willingly exposing himself to every well-wisher who wanted to approach him. Just because I aspired to do the same thing he had made into a wildly successful career, didn't make me any different than the rest of them.

I was a little disappointed by the experience -- but how couldn't I be. This man was an unacknowledged hero to me. By that I mean, I didn't go around telling everyone that I worshipped Roger Ebert or proclaiming the influence he'd had on my life. But I have absolutely no doubt that he was one of a few key factors in me pursuing film criticism as a career.

I am very sad today, on the day of Ebert's death, but I guess I'm not as sad as the day Gene Siskel died in 1999. Even though I knew Siskel had been struggling with a probably fatal illness, his actual death caught me completely by surprise and left me feeling hollow for days. Now, I'm 14 years more jaded and more accustomed to public figures bowing out of our collective lives. Ebert was 70, which is three years younger than my dad, who seems like he could live another 25. But 70 is also old enough that you don't say the person got cheated by not living longer.

Still, Ebert was an active force in film criticism up until, well, this week I guess. He lost his jaw to cancer and became a shadow of his former self, yet that only seemed to increase the vigor with which he discussed films.

And one thing about the version of Ebert we'd come to know in recent years: He was always smiling. Whether that was a true reflection of his feelings about the world or not, I like to think that it was.


Nick Prigge said...

I love that story. That's the reality. We dream of what it will be like when meet these people who mean so much but the reality never quite matches up to the dream. And that's ok. That we meet them at all is a blessing and, of course, their work itself is the biggest blessing of all.

Sad day.

Don Handsome said...

I remember that day well. I got a slightly more upbeat reaction from Ebert when I begged him to give me a negative review in the inscription to my book (I always loved his scathing zero star reviews the most). He wouldn't oblige me. He giggled slightly and wrote "No Thumbs Down For You". But just being in his presence at that festival and the one the year before (when I peed next to him in the Men's room) felt very much like being in the presence of greatness.

I may have slipped away from Ebert in recent years, but I will always treasure what he did for me as an aspiring film buff. His reviews taught me the language to use when discussing film and his review of Caligula remains my all-time favorite published review to this day. RIP.