When I first started attending advanced previews of films in Chicago, many of them were held at The Screening Room on the 16th floor at 70 E. Lake St. This is an intimate venue consisting of about 50 seats and upon walking in, I immediately felt out of place. All of the critics there were very much at ease with one another and the room and I didn’t know a soul. As I scanned the theater, looking for a vacant seat, I recognized many of the critics who I had read or seen on television. Mike Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune was towards the front talking to Dan Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critic’s Association, while Richard Roeper of At the Movies was on the far side of the room. And sitting in the chair in the back by the door was Roger Ebert. He was deep in conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader about a film that had recently seen together and what I immediately noticed was that he was just as he appeared on TV – passionate about what he was talking about, eloquent in expressing himself and willing to consider another’s point of view.
I didn’t introduce myself that day – I was occupied with finding a seat that didn’t belong to a regular and concentrating on not looking too much like a rube. However, I did speak to him when I found myself on an elevator one day with him and some fellow critics and a conversation on Kurosawa films was underway. Everyone was weighing in on what their favorite feature by the Japanese master was and I stood quietly taking it all in. I had only been coming to screenings for a little over a month at that point and still didn’t feel as though I could chime in on such conversations, as if I was not yet part of the group. And yet, Ebert turned to me, having never spoken to me before and said, “How about you?” I was more than a bit stunned but was able to choke out, “I’ve always liked High and Low Mr. Ebert.” He briefly nodded and said, “I like that one too, and call me ‘Roger’.”
Well, needless to say, that made my day and as I got to know Mr. Ebert a bit better (I could never bring myself to call him ‘Roger.’ Didn’t seem proper to me), I recognized that here was a man without pretense. He never forgot where he’d come from, retaining a Midwest sensibility of kindness and familiarity, and he willingly embraced anyone who shared his passion for film. I didn’t speak to him often, but whenever I did he was always gracious in listening to any questions I had or seemed interested in what I thought about a current movie that was playing. And I certainly wasn’t the only one I saw him treat in this manner. Film critics come and go on the Chicago circuit and I had on numerous occasions seen him treat newcomers just as he had me when I was wet behind the years – as an equal whose take on movies was just as valid as his.
I came to realize that there was really no difference between the Mr. Ebert I knew and the Mr. Ebert I grew up listening to on the influential movie review program Sneak Previews that he co-hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel. There was nothing artificial about him – he was simply a man with a keen view on life that knew the most vital pieces of knowledge come through observation. Whether it be watching a film or being a keen observer of human nature, my sense of him was that he wanted to take everything in, as if he were going to ultimately catalogue all he had witnessed in order to come up with some universal truth about who we are and what makes us tick.
I’m not sure if he ever came to any conclusions regarding this or if in fact this was his intent. I do know that I and many, many others would not be able to weigh in on the current state of cinema had Mr. Ebert not blazed the trail he had. He and Siskel made conversations about cinema a vital part of the national dialogue. Sneak Previews was a national sensation and through it, these two made film criticism accessible to the masses, freeing it from the grip of the haughty New York reviewers, so many of whom would write about movies with condescension and at times disdain. While it has been argued, and not without merit, that these two dumbed down film criticism by reducing it to a Consumer Reports-like exercise in which a thumb pointing up or down was used as a shorthand guideline to determine if filmgoers should spend their hard-earned cash on the latest flick, there’s no question that they opened a free-flowing dialogue on the medium that resonates to this day. Film critics are far more prevalent now than they ever were before with space devoted to their musings in newspapers with circulation numbers far less than those of major urban publications, news stations in similar-sized markets utilize them as well while the coming of the internet has provided seemingly endless opportunities for cinema writers to express themselves. That’s not to say that each film critic is worth reading but the dialogue about the medium has never been stronger or more diverse and that’s what matters.
Siskel and Mr. Ebert helped prove the point that movies truly do matter, that it’s important to understand that they are a reflection of who we are or were during the making of any given feature and that if the medium continues to produce thought-provoking pieces, than it’s vital that we are able to understand them because they say so very much about who we are and what we hope to be. Mr. Ebert recognized this and he helped to nurture this perspective in an untold number of fellow viewers. He certainly had that effect on me and if he had not used exposed me to so many different sorts of movies through his newspaper columns and television shows, I certainly wouldn’t have discovered so many films that delighted and intrigued me, nor would I have been able to respond to the question he asked me that day in the elevator.
And while it is far too modest a sentiment, on this day of his passing I need to simply say “Thank You” to Mr. Ebert for being a guiding light as far as revealing to me so many meaningful movies. In retrospect, I realize I should have called you “Roger.”