I can credit my intense love of movies to two people: my mom and Roger Ebert. I used to watch Sneak Previous and At the Movies religiously, and I’d make note of the movies I was too young to see, but would undoubtedly seek out when I was older. Mom is the person who would put those tapes in my hands… or at least patiently tolerate whenever I’d catch something a bit advanced on HBO.
Those TV shows, of course, were a joint effort between Siskel and Ebert, but Ebert was the one I connected with. Siskel was a smart guy, but Ebert knew something that most critics don’t realize: highbrow art and lowbrow art are both art. Ebert could defend summer blockbuster fare as easily as he could defend a Fellini film. He also knew how to talk about folks like Fellini and Bergman in a way that felt accessible. He could guide you around the subtler points of the cinema without making you feel dumb for missing details on the first go.
I started attending Ebertfest in Chambana, IL, only a few years ago, after Ebert already had his jaw removed. He’d always put in a few appearances at the film festival, but it was clear that it was difficult for him to get around. He’d use his computer to speak to us, and would gesture charmingly with his hands as the digital voice spoke for him. The removal of his jaw left him with a permanent smile upon his face, but when he was in the Virginia Theater with us, that smile always looked like something he’d choose to wear anyway. The Virginia Theater felt like his home, and he made us all feel welcome.
Over the few years I’ve been to Ebertfest, Roger’s amazing wife Chaz has been taking on more of the MC duties of the festival. It’s always a delight to see her, too. She’s the sort of person whose smile is larger than life.
Last year, Chaz was MC for the festival almost the entire time. If I remember right, I only saw Roger in the theater once. That’s when I snapped the photo above.
I never did get to thank Mr. Ebert in person. I’m not too disappointed by that, though. He seemed to always be surrounded by people who loved him and his life’s work. I would have just been one more voice in the crowd. I got to watch movies with him, and that’s an honor.
This year’s Ebertfest happens in two weeks. I wish he could have made it to one last Ebertfest, because he would carefully select each film specifically because he felt it hadn’t been seen by enough people. He had already selected this year’s slate of films. He wanted to share these films with us. It’s a shame he won’t see that giant old moviehouse packed one last time, packed with people excited to share the moviegoing experience with him.
My heart goes out to Chaz and to all my critic friends who knew Roger much better than I did. We’re all going to miss him.