When teen pop idols Davy Jones and Don Grady died, I wrote tributes to both of them. When a pantheon of greatness like Roger Ebert dies, it is a bigger challenge to write a worthy piece. Roger Ebert is as synonymous with Chicago as Oprah Winfrey, Vienna Beef hot dogs, Wrigley Field, Deep-dish pizza, and Studs Terkel. Roger Ebert made me proud to be a native Chicagoan – I took other aspects of the city for granted, but never Roger Ebert. He was without a doubt the greatest film critic that ever lived. There have been others of considerable talent – the legendary Pauline Kael at the front of that list, but Ebert wrote in a natural, conversational style without any pretense. How is it possible to be so knowledgeable about film without sounding pedantic or pretentious? I think many of his colleagues hit it right on the head – Ebert was just a regular Joe at the core – a chubby, bespectacled, brainy geek from downstate Illinois. And he basically stayed that way despite fame, acclaim, and fortune. Think about it – he probably met more famous movie stars and directors than any person on earth – even Barbara Walters, yet never came off as elitist or snobby. Here are a few tributes to Ebert from his Chicago buddies/colleagues:
I first discovered the powerful magic of movies when at age 10, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Some Like it Hot – we were going to meet my dad at the Chicago Auto Show and had to leave the house before it was over. But my earliest memory harkens back to the age of 3 or 4 – very vague and I cannot remember the film, but a little girl who was paralyzed etched an indelible image in the far recesses of my visual brain. I have seen so many films now that it is hard to remember all of them.
This love of cinema was further cemented in stone when I had the privilege of attending the Rhode Island School of Design and going to the iconic and always highly anticipated student film festival every spring. It really ticked me off when a fleeting boyfriend of mine showed up just before I was leaving for the auditorium and thought it was more important to make out than attend the festival – I missed a good 45 minutes as a result. I took one film appreciation course at RISD entitled Sex in the Cinema that ran the gamut from a documentary of a woman giving birth to a glorified porn flick, albeit produced by a fine artist. I took another hands-on film course and created one super-8 film that was mediocre. Some pretty lofty talent graduated from the RISD FAV Department, among them Martha Coolidge, Gus Van Sant, Seth MacFarlane, and three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson. It was during this time that I went through a Garbo phase, devouring every one of her films.
Cinema is at the top of my list of leisure interests/hobbies and I cannot imagine how this would have played out without Ebert. After Jeff and I met in 1998 and discovered a shared love of film, our devotion to Ebert increased, as did our reliance on IMDB, a site Ebert embraced early on and fittingly lists his reviews first under external reviews. In many instances we wouldn’t even consider going to the theater – or more recently, watching a film on Netflix, until we read his review. But there were instances in which I wanted to watch the film first, share my thoughts with Jeff, and then see how closely my thoughts paralleled Ebert’s.
The ritual of reading his reviews greatly enhanced our love of film and led to seeing some obscure gems like Sita Sings the Blues. At times his reviews were redemptive – they confirmed our sometimes spot-on taste in films. On ocassion, we thought specific films were masterpieces, but either nobody we knew had heard of them or people we knew disagreed vehemently. The two that stand out the most are Dark City and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Dark City is one of the most stylish, visually gorgeous SciFi movies, and while SciFi is by no means my favorite genre, I have watched this great film 3-4 times and still think it is wonderful. Ebert loved this film and it made his Great Movies list. It was my introduction to actor Rufus Sewell, and boy was I entranced with his stunning dark curls and haunting beautiful eyes.
In his review, Ebert said of Perfume, “Why I love this story, I do not know. Why I have read the book twice and given away a dozen copies of the audiobook, I cannot explain. There is nothing fun about the story, except the way it ventures so fearlessly down one limited, terrifying, seductive dead end, and finds there a solution both sublime and horrifying. It took imagination to tell it, courage to film it, thought to act it, and from the audience it requires a brave curiosity about the peculiarity of obsession.” This film absolutely blew us away – the acting of Ben Whishaw and Alan Rickman were superb and there is a scene towards the end that is more mind-blowing than anything we have ever witnessed in cinema before or since.
Ebert and director Werner Herzog admired one another greatly, and in fact, Herzog may have been his favorite director. Jeff and I agree that Herzog is a brilliant director, and most miraculous is that Herzog somehow reined in the mad genius of the late Klaus Kinski, who starred in two of the greatest films in cinema history. The films Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo both made Ebert’s Great Movies list and his reviews are bravura Ebert. We also loved Stroszek, a more obscure Herzog film that would have remained undiscovered if it had not been for Ebert’s scholarly review.
As many other have written, beyond his incredibly insightful and erudite film criticism was an amazing man who didn’t let cancer and its associated physical hardships defeat him. While many humans would have sunk into despair in the face of not being able to eat or speak, Ebert exhibited a remarkable resolve that helped countless other people struggling with life-threatening diseases/illnesses. He was a consummate role model – fearless, strong, and unwavering with death staring him in the face. He may be remembered for that as much as the impressive legacy he left behind which includes thousands of brilliant film reviews, wonderful blogs, around 20 books, Ebertfest, and so much more. We will greatly miss his reviews, but will remember him in spirit every time we watch a great film … or a thumbs-down one, for that matter.