By Marilyn Ferdinand
Roger Ebert was my hometown critic. When he first started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, I wasn’t quite old enough to be aware of written film reviews, and my parents subscribed to the Chicago Tribune anyway. It would be a while before Roger Ebert really became a presence to me.
It began with Sneak Previews, the program he cohosted with Gene Siskel that, for a while, was only available on WTTW-TV, Chicago’s PBS station. I loved the show for a lot of reasons, but mostly because Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were people like me. They were both from Illinois, they looked and talked like people I knew, and they dealt with a subject that my movie-mad mother had taught me to love. I couldn’t get enough of their Dog of the Week segment, when they welcomed Sparky or Spot the Wonder Dogs to sit with them in the balcony and take a metaphorical leak on one of the films that Siskel hated for stealing two hours of his life that he would “never get back again.” His pain at the lost time made me determined to try to see only good movies. So while I was of a writerly bent and just as besotted by newspaper journalism as they were—that seems to be a common affliction of would-be writers from Chicago—I never aspired to have their job.
When I went to live in Chicago proper, the alternative newspaper The Reader was my source for recommendations of things to do in the city. I read Dave Kehr regularly, though I really didn’t understand his verbiage very well, and then Jonathan Rosenbaum. And I kept watching Sneak Previews. The Reader steered me in the direction of such new films as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens (1975). But at the time, I was a legit theatre hound and went to films on dates or as something else to do.
As I got older and burned out on theatre, film started to loom brighter on the horizon. During this time, Roger Ebert entered my personal space, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. My father and I had a Monday night series, and as it happens, Roger did, too. We’d see him at the act breaks in the lobby, where he stood talking with a succession of women, one of whom was Chaz. When I pointed excitedly at Roger, Dad looked him up and down. Never a stargazer, he asked me if I thought Ebert made a good living. When I said that I did, he commented that it would be nice if he used some of his earnings to get his suits tailored properly. I was so embarrassed, as we were within earshot of the great man.
“I LOVE Metropolis!” were the first words Roger Ebert ever spoke to me. The time and place were 1999 at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, where I was attending Roger’s very first Overlooked Film Festival. We had just seen Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925), a great motion picture that is hardly overlooked among film enthusiasts. Roger, however, wasn’t thinking about the film per se as overlooked, but rather the increasingly niched taste for silent film that made such towering works part of the cultural landscape of only a relative few. It was his mission to nurture an appreciation of these and other films that time and tastes had all but passed by.
His reason for choosing Battleship Potemkin over many other silents had to do with his other mission in life: discovering and nurturing young talent. An industrial rock band called Concrete had written a score for the film, and Roger was in attendance when they first played it for a showing in Three Oaks, Michigan. So invigorated was Roger by the presentation that he invited Concrete to the Virginia to give his audience a thrill. Even my 73-year-old mother thought they were wonderful. Hence my sheepish approach to the great man with the idea that he invite Concrete back to play for a showing of Metropolis (1927). That didn’t happen because Concrete never wrote a score for the film—commissioning one, he said, would have been too expensive for the fledgling festival that was a fundraiser for the Virginia and for Roger’s alma mater, the University of Illinois—but silent films would be a fixture at what became known as Ebertfest from that point onward. I was fortunate to attend almost all of the festivals, a couple on press passes Roger okayed for me, an experience I know from reading the many tributes to him that others would have killed to have had.
When I started getting invited to the Lake Street screening room during the Chicago International Film Festival, I got to share air space with the great man and his wife. I remember that he was one of the few critics who chose to advance-screen The Princess of Montpensier (2010), which had been savaged by French critics. I was pleased that we were both fans of Bertrand Tavernier and that we were sharing the director’s unfairly maligned feature together.
Roger’s famed generosity has been commented upon many times since we got the devastating news of his death. He brought Martin Scorsese from despair to renewal and even declared young director Shane Carruth a budding Scorsese when he brought Carruth to Ebertfest for a screening of his 2004 debut film Primer. He was generous in supporting my film criticism, tweeting out a recommendation of a post I wrote, linking my review of Sita Sings the Blues (2008) on his journal, and helping to support For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon all three years with tweets, prizes, and probably a donation or two. At one of the Ebertfests I attended, I believe it was the first one where they had a La-Z-Boy lounger installed in the back of the theatre for him, I went up to him to introduce myself as the blogger he’d been so nice to. He pointed to himself, crossed his arms across his chest, and then pointed at me—I was floored.
It was this generosity, encouragement, and the acute insights he brought to bear in his criticism that marked him as a consummate educator. In my opinion, Roger Ebert’s greatest gift to the world was to educate people about film, to help them develop visual literacy that, as it turns out, is more important than ever to the global, electronically connected world in which we live. His Great Movies series is a curriculum all its own, essential reading and a viewing guide for anyone who wants to understand the language of cinema at its finest. Roger also dissected what was bad in the film literature, pointing out clichés like the fruit cart that gets hit during a car chase, a tired trope that was lampooned in Ski Patrol (1990) with said cart being labeled “Siskel and Ebert Fruit Cart.”
His passion to be a newspaperman exemplified his desire to learn the facts, discern the truth in them, and communicate both to others. His fellow newspaperman and TV partner Gene Siskel called their arena “the American dream beat,” but Roger saw it as much more. In focusing so much on the performances and people on screen, as well as the viewpoints of those behind the cameras, he helped us understand human behavior, learn close observation, and connect our fate with those of people distant from our own lives.
For example, I remember a segment from Sneak Previews where he pinpointed a choice Shirley MacLaine made in Terms of Endearment (1983) to take off her shoes and shake them in her hand as pivotal to understanding the internal thoughts we all have and communicate through gesture. I remember his ingenuity in choosing Tian-Ming Wu’s King of Masks (1997), a subtitled period Chinese film, as his free family film during one iteration of Ebertfest, telling parents and older siblings to read the subtitles to children not yet able to read. Despite the setting, alien language, and harsh conditions very far removed from the lives of youngsters living in the middle of Illinois, he understood how children would be transported with their imaginations and identify with the girl and the old man who come to love each other. And they did.
Roger Ebert taught film classes, wrote millions of words in his reviews and books, and eventually let the film beat fade a bit as he wrote more personally of his own travels and travails as a human being. His personal and confessional approach left some professional film critics aghast, but Roger understood the importance of telling the stories of our lives, of passing them along as wisdom for the next generation. He touched us as an educator not just about movies, but about what it means to be human. We’ll not see his like again any time soon.