Art Beat: We all lost a good friend in Roger Ebert

One of the last emails I received from Roger Ebert came Feb. 9. Characteristically, it was about someone he was promoting, both as one of his "Far Flung Correspondents" — FFCs, the bloggers from around the world that he featured on his website — and filmmaker.

"So: One of the FFCs has made a successful film, and here she is, and we're showing it! What could be more perfect?" he wrote of the 2013 Ebertfest, coming up April 17-21.

Now from beyond, Mr. Ebert will show FFC Grace Wang's "I Remember," a short film, on the first day of Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.

She couldn't believe it: "Pinch me. Are you thinking out loud or is this actually happening?" she wrote in response to his plan.

Eight days earlier, Feb. 1, Mr. Ebert had sent me, as well as a few others, another email, yet again promoting someone else, this time Scott Jordan Harris of London, who had "made many friends at Ebertfest 2012."

Harris had sent the famed film critic a PDF file of the new volume in Harris' series, "World Film Locations: Chicago," which will be published this spring.

"It is dedicated to Gene Siskel — evidence of the power of the Internet, because this young Londoner who is slowed by chronic fatigue syndrome could only have seen our program online," Mr. Ebert wrote.

The last email I received from him, on March 26, contained only three words and came in response to my request to interview him and his wife in advance of this year's Ebertfest. "Up to Chaz," he wrote.

She and I subsequently chatted by phone and email and agreed I might go up early last week to Chicago to see her and Mr. Ebert, then at the Rehabilitation Institute.

She said she thought my visit might be good for her husband.

Alas, his condition began to deteriorate, and Chaz later said it might be better to do the interview by email. I sent questions. But the day before Mr. Ebert died, Chaz, who's as gracious as her late husband, found the time to email me again, saying he was unable to answer the questions then and we would have to reschedule.

We all know what happened next.

We all lost a good friend. I've read Facebook posts from peopel who had never met Mr. Ebert but felt they'd lost a friend.

That was his way.

I first met him while covering Ebertfest in 1999. I had just gotten back from England, has not done any preview stories on the festival and was experiencing a nasty breakup. Distracted, I saw just a few of the films and wrote little.

By the second year, my editors and I realized Ebertfest was extremely special, and so was Mr. Ebert. From then on, I wrote reams of copy on the festival, and he took notice.

He told me, as I waylaid him for quotes at an earlier festival, that he was impressed with my output and found my prose "readable."

I continued cranking out copy about the festival each year, and over time his praise of my work became more effusive.

He wrote online that I covered Ebertfest like the dew and that The News-Gazette's coverage overall was superb. He promoted it in his blogs and on Twitter.

Of course, I was flattered by his support as well as that of Chaz Ebert, who once "gobsmacked" (a word Mr. Ebert once used to refer to himself after The New York Times published a flattering story about him) me with her generosity when she mentioned my coverage from the Virginia stage to a packed house waiting to see Ang Lee's "Hulk." It was one of the biggest boosts I'd received in my career.

Of course, I saved most of the emails I've received from the Eberts. Perhaps my favorite came in July 2005 after I covered "Roger Ebert Day" in Chicago.

"Strange how when I read it in The News-Gazette it *really* seems to be in 'the paper.' Lifelong programming, I think," Mr. Ebert wrote. "Thanks for your wonderful stories about RE day.

"You have been so kind over the years and I feel like we have never had time to really sit down and talk. Please be sure to hang out in the Green Room between movies, if your deadlines allow, because the best thing about the festival from the guests' point of view is the chance to meet each other."

Alas, I was always too busy reporting and writing to spend any time in the green room. I also am somewhat shy, though I no longer show it as a result of having interviewed thousands of people, some famous, some not, since I started this wonderful, encompassing, exciting, sometimes tedious career of daily newspaper journalism nearly four decades ago.

Even though I felt flattered by the Eberts' public praise of me, I also would feel uncomfortable, telling friends it put additional pressure on me as I covered the five-day marathon that is Ebertfest.

But I cherish the Eberts' comments, emails and support over the years — and I'm glad I told Mr. Ebert that a few months ago.

I believe he responded to my old-school, journalistic coverage because he was a newspaperman at heart and his first reporting job had been at The News-Gazette.

Of course, he was generous in supporting others, among them Nina Paley of Urbana. He showed her groundbreaking, award-winning animated film, "Sita Sings the Blues," at the 2009 Ebertfest.

He also supported her in what she called her "radical" move to remove copyright from "Sita Sings the Blues," making it free and available to anyone who wants to download or show it.

Like many others, Paley found herself in a "semi-shock" after hearing of Mr. Ebert's death on Thursday. It marked the passing of an era even though he had thrived on the Internet, perhaps the only print film critic to do so.

He had a fan's passion for film that seemed to never flag, and a passion and empathy for people and their stories that few, if any, celebrities have in equal measure.

I can still see him in my mind's eye during the early years of Ebertfest, before cancer struck and eventually took his speaking voice, on the Virginia stage after a screening, leaning toward the filmmaker or actor or producer and asking intelligent, insightful, knowledgeable questions.

His enthusiasm, like that of a much younger person, was obvious.

His questions seldom if ever referred to himself, unlike those asked by some of the other film critics and bloggers, particularly younger ones, who shared his Ebertfest duties after he lost his ability to use his speaking voice.

It took me a while to get used to his reduced onstage presence at Ebertfest, particularly during the Q-and-A's. I, as well as many others, missed it sorely.

The only critic I feel came close to Mr. Ebert, who like him was an intellectual with a common touch, was former Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who appeared on stage at one Ebertfest. Interesting that Schickel, like Ebert, was born in the Midwest, too.

Sabrina Lee, who will bring her documentary "Not Yet Begun to Fight" to the 2013 Ebertfest, shares my feelings about Mr. Ebert.

She began to follow him in the early 1990s, when she lived in Chicago.

"To me, his reviews struck a perfect balance between brilliant insight and remarkable accessibility. Perhaps that is why he was the most beloved film critic of our time," she wrote via email.

"I recently read (and loved) Roger Ebert's memoir, 'Life Itself'; it included a number of fascinating revelations about movies and his view of life.

"Among my favorite discoveries was a simple remark he made about film, and the films he gravitated toward. He said he liked films about good people ... or maybe characters who were on their way to becoming good. This makes perfect sense to me because I think, fundamentally, Roger had what I would call a persistent faith in humanity, and he believed in that which made the world better.

"And as a fan of his, a filmmaker, and a fellow lover of film, I can say that sentiment was palpable in his reviews, in his books, and in his interactions with the public who truly loved him back. He will be missed."

Indeed. There never was and will never be anyone like Roger Ebert.

In NYC

University of Illinois dance Professor Cynthia Oliver will present her new duet "BOOM!," featuring dancers Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet, in a program starting at 7:30 p.m. April 25-27 at New York Arts Live, a venue in Chelsea that was founded in 2011 by a merger of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Dance Theater Workshop.

"A nugget of a larger work to come, 'BOOM!' exposes and manipulates notions of building a life and a relationship — of a woman to herself, her history, her present and future," a news release reads. "Negotiating and renegotiating the rules of personhood, fate and consequence, 'BOOM!' simultaneously reveals, resists and submits to the structures and shape of a performance."

Oliver's piece will open a program that will feature a world premiere of Souleymane Badolo's "Barak, Buudou, BADOO, BADOLO."

Tickets are $20. For more information, check out http://www.newyorklivearts.org/event/barak.

Another UI dance faculty member, Tere O'Connor, recently posted on his and Jenn Joy's Bleed website his article "The Hudson Movement," which he wrote for the Movement Research Performance Journal #41. Read it here: http://bleedtereoconnor.org/?p=354.

"Many of the concepts here helped liberate me and the decisions I made in 'poem' and 'Secret Mary,'" he wrote via email.

In May, O'Connor will start on the third work in this series: "a duet for the amazing Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson," he wrote.

Krannert Art Museum will produce and present that duet Sept. 11-12 in the museum's main gallery.

Books optioned

Twentieth Century Fox has optioned the movie and TV rights to Urbana resident Marianne Malone's three novels for middle-grade children set at the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. The first two are "The Sixty-Eight Rooms" and "Stealing Magic." The third book in the series, "The Pirate's Coin," will be released May 28.

"I don't know if they'll ever get produced, but they have the option for either film or TV!" Malone said via email.

Congrats!

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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