Missing Roger Ebert

Casey St. Charnez - April 5, 2013

"Now there will be no more from him, and aren’t we all the sadder for it"

This past week’s major movie news, unlike that of most weeks, wasn’t about a wayward celebrity, or a bomb of a blockbuster, or the impending and unnecessary sequel to something-or-other.

Instead, alas, it was the omnipresent media bulletin that one Roger Joseph Ebert, 70, finally had succumbed to the cancer that had been killing him for over a decade.

Really, really sad. I liked him a lot.

Over the past few days, everyone who can type has written something in his memoriam. Often, writers cite his courage in publicly exposing what was left of his lower jaw after surgery, and then directing aficionados to his 2011 autobiography “Life Itself.”

Me, I just thought he was smart and cool.

And it wasn’t just that he once generously reviewed the book I work for: A blurb on the back cover features his quote, “I recommend Leonard Maltin’s Guide, which has become standard.”

Ebert, Siskel, and their trademarked thumbs.

It’s also that his celebrity status was so endearing. As the so-called “Fat One” opposite the late Gene Siskel (1946-1999), “The Thin One,” on the PBS show “Sneak Previews,” their seemingly Laurel-and-Hardy approach was actually TV’s first serious broadcast criticism. The pair, often at odds in their perspectives, introduced the thumbs up/thumbs down reduction of their opinions, a meme to which I offer a small homage in my blog photo above.   

I’d been aware of Ebert since noting his screenwriter credit on 1970’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a movie which then seemed a brilliantly executed social satire…with director Russ Meyer’s signature X-rated T&A fetish a definite plus for my teen sensibilities.

Unlikely collaborators Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, circa 1970.

My admiration for his work continued over the decades. Until very recently, I’d read his essays in Friday’s “Venue” magazine for the “Albuquerque Journal,” eagerly scoping out “what Ebert thinks,” and it didn’t matter what movie he was discussing.

This personal adulation had culminated in 1988 when Himself flew to Santa Fe for the March premiere of Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War.” 

That was a quarter-century ago, but, thankfully, I’ve still got my notes from a quick interview conducted with him at the post-premiere party.

After a triumphant screening at the Lensic, invitees happily trooped over to the St. Francis Auditorium in the Museum of (then-Fine) Arts for post-premiere festivities. Press, locals, actors, media and hangers-on all mingled, dancing to a salsa band and drinking the cash bars dry.  

I wore two hats that evening, one as the resident film critic for TheSanta Fe Reporter, one representing KLSK-FM radio, where I had a weekly “CinemaScoop” show, and for which I was working a live remote airing from the gala.

I was looking for him, and looking forward to meeting him. For long before, I fervently had taken to heart his advice to young reviewers not to be afraid to insert the personal touch into their writing. It was easy to find the jovial, available Ebert in the crowd, and readily he agreed to say a few words to the listeners.

“First off I want to tell everyone,” he cautioned, “that I’m not going to talk about the movie I just saw because that dissipates the energy of the review.”

“But you liked it, right?” I pushed.

“Yes, I guess I can say that much. I liked it.” It was begrudging, but said with a smile.

(Note: He spoke truly. The April 1, 1988, writeup for his home-based Chicago Sun-Times expressed some reservations, but overall he felt it was “a wonderful fable…full of love and joy.”)

His humanistic approach to movies—as opposed to haughty cinema—made him eminently accessible to any reader or viewer or listener. It was precisely that everyman quality that earned him, in 1975, the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for writing about film. (Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post took second, but it took the Pulitzer committee until 2003 to find this next worthy).

That night way back when, I did mention to him that not many people knew about his academic side. For many years he had been a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago, where his night courses were no easy A.

“I know,” he said, wistfully. “Teaching is what I really like to do. I want to do more of it.”

And so he did, for another 25 years, in books and articles, on television and at film festivals, and especially at the eponymous Ebertfest, his own personalized celebration of the motion picture.

Now there will be no more from him, and aren’t we all the sadder for it.