If there is anything that defines who I am, it is my total obsession and infatuation with the movies. It was sparked when I was seven and was taken to see The Blues Brothers at the long defunct Diana Theatre in Homewood, IL (and yes, it was rated R, but my parents were awesome in their leniency.) But my love was fed every week by the show Sneak Previews on WTTW. And it was cultivated by the two most important professors of my entire life, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I see now that what I loved was their artistic egalitarianism. They weren’t snobs. They would discuss My Dinner with Andre with the same passion and aplomb that would discuss Oh, Heavenly Dog (and believe me, at the time, I had ZERO interest in a movie about a couple of guys sitting around and eating. Give me the review of the new Benji movie! And they better LIKE IT!)
But I was more drawn to one of my professors, and that was because my parents were subscribers to the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper of Roger Ebert. And every Friday was like Christmas, because I’d get to read his new reviews. And every year, I would buy the new Roger Ebert Movie Yearbook and read it from cover to cover. And to read his reviews at such a young age and to continue reading new reviews by him until today is the single greatest gift a movie nerd like me could ever wish for. Anything I know about watching a movie, or, for that matter, reading a book, or listening to music, or ANYTHING that requires a leap into the psyche and abilities of any artist and his or her work, and to be able to critically analyze why it is good or why it is not, was brought into fruition by reading the reviews of Roger Ebert.
I only get to meet him once. I was at Ebertfest a few years ago to attend the screening of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. I was in line waiting to be admitted and out of an SUV emerged Roger and Chaz Ebert. He waved to everybody in line and walked into one of the side entrances of the Virginia Theatre. But moments later, he came out of the theatre and shook the hands of EVERYBODY in line. There must have been at least 200 of us waiting outside. And as he was making his way down the line, all I could think was, “Oh shit. One of the most influential people of my life, a person whose work I’ve devoured for thirty years, is going to eventually shake my hand… and all my cognitive ability has evaporated from my brain! Where am I? What am I here to see? What’s my name?!”
Then he shook my hand. And I think I was able to muster enough verbal dexterity to spit out how important he was to my life. And he gave me the Thumbs Up. And he made his way down the rest of the line. The exchange may have lasted all of ten seconds. Ten lovely, glorious, magnificent seconds with one of the people who taught me how to think about art and how to love art.
This is being written through a veil of tears. The idea of not being able to read something new from Roger fills me with so much sorrow. But the thousands upon thousands of words he left, and will always be there to read, fills me with so much joy.Follow @filmbyfelix