You didn't have to know American film critic Roger Ebert in person — as I was fortunate enough to do for some 20 years — in order to feel as if you knew him.
Although Roger was a rather extraordinary fellow, he had the common touch. As far as I could tell — and I say this as a film critic who needs time to organise my thoughts and my prose — in writing terms, Roger was the equivalent of Usain Bolt: Gifted and impossibly swift, starting and finishing with elegance.
Life Itself , the bittersweet and unflinching documentary about Roger, begun while he was still alive and completed after his death, had its world premiere at Sundance in January and its European premiere at Cannes in May. The doc was shown in the 'Cannes Classics' section, devoted to restored films and more recent work with a connection to the history of cinema. It's not only a splendidly programmed portion of the Official Selection, it also tends to be easier to get into the screenings there than it is in some other segments of the festival.
It was especially heartening to see that some festival-goers who were just happy to get into a film — ANY film — and didn't know Roger Ebert from a hole in the wall were fascinated and moved by the doc.
Roger made the trek to Cannes for over three decades, starting when the journalist contingent from North America probably would have fit on one medium sized tour bus. (Now, of course, the North American journo contingent would overflow one of those double decker giant jets, even if the bloggers under age 25 agreed to ship themselves in the cargo hold as freight.)
Cannes was still a sleepy town and Roger sketched and wrote about the stuff dreams are made of with a down-to-earth immediacy that keeps his 'old' dispatches feeling fresh even at this remove.
"Our relationship felt a bit like one of the friendlier gods taking a break from Mt. Olympus to smile and wave at me out of all available mortals."
I grew up in Chicago where Roger was the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in April of 2013. The late '60s and early 1970s were a mouth-watering time to be writing about cinema.
That's not only because it seemed as if there was a masterwork from somewhere (France, England, Sweden, Italy, homegrown) almost every week but because people read (and re-read and debated) what 'the critics' had to say.
Before the then-unimaginable miracle of home video, the only way to see a given film was to go to the movie theatre where it was showing and buy a ticket. Chicago — a very big city — still had plenty of atmospheric movie palaces, some with nearly 4,000 seats, and every neighborhood had its share of movie theaters.
Whether you believed that movies were art or entertainment or both, there was an urgency to seeking them out.
If you didn't see a film when it was in commercial release you'd have to wait for years to see it on TV, chopped up with advertising breaks and sanitised if there was objectionable language or a hint of nudity.
It was a glorious time to be a film critic and Roger never lost his enthusiasm for sharing his enthusiams with readers. He didn't 'write down' to readers either, although the standard lesson in American journalism schools is that any newspaper article should be written in such a way that an individual with a 5th-grade education (approximately age 11) can understand it.
Roger and one Gene Siskel, the guy who reviewed movies at the rival Chicago Tribune, started out sparring on a show on the local 'educational' TV station. As the doc demonstrates with insight and humour, Roger ("the fat one") and Gene ("the skinny one") shared a love for the movies but rarely saw eye to eye on the air. Their combative repartee made for exciting television. After various iterations of the show they ended up in nationwide syndication and the shades-of-ancient-Rome 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' shorthand they purveyed became part of the national vocabulary. ("We give this two thumbs up." "I give this one thumb way, way up.")
Gene died young from brain cancer in 1999. The seriousness of his condition was kept a secret even from Roger who, not having had a chance to say a proper farewell, resolved that if his health ever took a turn for the worse, he'd make sure those closest to him were informed.
And so, when Roger's cancer problems led to the loss of his ability to eat or speak — two of the activities he had embraced hs entire life with what can only be described as a very robust appetite — he shared the details of his condition with anyone interested in the tribulations of an illness-plagued regular guy who happened to be a (mostly) beloved public figure.
In Roger's lifetime cancer went from being such a scary affliction that it could barely be mentioned in polite company ("She expired after a long illness...") to a fact-of-life that intrudes on people from all segments of society everywhere on earth. Because of his television show and his photo on the covers of his popular books, tens of millions of people knew what Roger Ebert was "supposed" to look like. Roger shrugged and said, guess what — now I look like THIS. And went on living.
Having spoken with Roger on many occasions before surgery robbed him of the components that make speech possible, I felt how frustrating it was for him to try and keep up with the flow of a conversation involving world-class English film historians and critics David Robinson and John Russell Taylor (and yours truly) at the Chicago International Film Festival after Roger lost his voice for good. He had a little notepad and we were eager to read what he had to 'say' but a lively conversation is like a ping pong game in the wind and by the time Roger — who loved London almost as much as he loved the movies— jotted down what he wanted to interject, we had often moved on to another tangent.
But Roger could be terse and succinct, as he proved when he first announced on his website that you would never catch him doing something as silly as "tweeting" only to become a champion issuer of tweets with nearly a million followers.
I get to hold forth about movies once a week on the French TV channel France24 and when Roger liked one of my segments and said so on his Twitter feed, the number of folks who consulted the archived show rose by sometimes dazzling amounts. When Roger Tweeted a few of my film reviews in Screen International (before the publication erected a paywall,) my reviews figured in the list of "most read" stories on the site, something I'm pretty sure was due in great part to Roger calling attention to a given piece of mine.
Whatever one's field, it is very nice to earn the respect of one's peers. For a middle-class kid who grew up seeing Roger's byline in the then-hefty newspaper and his face on the side of delivery trucks, our relationship felt a bit like one of the friendlier gods taking a break from Mt. Olympus to smile and wave at me out of all available mortals.
My in-person rapport with Roger and his sharp, funny, bottomlessly supportive wife Chaz was cemented in Cannes indoors in the dark.
I'm not sure why, but I've always been a 'leftist' when it comes to 8:30 a.m. press screenings in the Lumiere Auditorium in Cannes. The main floor of the altogether splendid venue has a central block of seats flanked by two aisles and additional seating to the left and to the right. The majority of English-speaking critics seem to favour the right-hand 'wing.'
But I almost always gravitate to the left — and so did Roger, accompanied by Chaz. Our small talk looms large in my memory. I remember Roger telling me I looked like "an Egyptian princess" when I sat down in front of him with my thick frizzy hair (which is almost always worn in a bushy ponytail) still wet and fanning out to dry. Not only did it get my day off to a great start but it was infinitely kinder than "Hey lady, would you mind getting your hair out of my sightlines?"
Being a film critic in a festival setting is a strange job. Depending on the perceived importance of your media outlet, what you write or say about a given film may influence its fortunes in the marketplace and its reception by people who haven't had a chance to see it yet for themselves. I prefer to think about what I think about a film, but the fidgety nerve-jangled powers-that-be have decreed that even if prospective readers live in a time zone where they're sound asleep when the morning press screening ends in Cannes, France it is vital that you render your verdict NOW, this minute.
Tight deadlines didn't faze Roger.
I did, however, see Roger take his eyes off the screen more than once in order to jot something down in the dark. I believe that it is precisely when the critic is not watching the screen — however fleeting the inattention — that some absolutely crucial bit of information will be revealed. Look down and somebody will get abducted by aliens or a piece of incriminating evidence will be planted or a dagger will find its way into a vital organ. Assessing movies is a bit like operating a motor vehicle: You must never take your eyes off the road.
When Variety bounced me after 17 years of reviewing and reporting from France, Roger spontaneously started going out of his way to describe me in print as "my friend Lisa who was the longtime Paris correspondent for Variety." It was such a classy thing to do, matter-of-factly announcing that if a certain venerable American trade paper founded in 1905 didn't want to be friends with me anymore, a certain venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning American film critic "founded" in 1942 most definitely did.
Each year during Cannes, Roger hosted a panel discussion with the American independent directors who had films showing in the festival.
In 1997 journalists in the audience who asked questions started identifying themselves as representing a traditional media outlet AND somethingorother dot com. Roger remarked on the trend toward online activity, something he embraced with near-genius.
While Roger continued to write tight informative prose to fit newspaper length restrictions, it was online in the infinite reaches of cyberspace that he really took wing. Anybody interested in the big issues — life, love, illness, friendship, family, scientific breakthroughs, faith, literature and, yes, movies — could do far worse than to read through Roger's first person essays archived online along with the thousands of perpetually valuable film reviews he wrote as a deadline critic.
While Roger was alive, RogerEbert.com (still going strong under Chaz's stewardship) had the best reader comments of any web site I read regularly. They were well-written and polite and usually pretty darn smart. That's because every person who wrote in knew that Roger himself would be reading what he or she had submitted. You could read hundreds of comments and come across replies from Roger at almost any juncture.
Where did he find the time?! Part of the answer may be that if you don't have to devote time to eating and drinking (a nutritionally balanced concoction kept Roger going but didn't require cooking or chewing) it frees you up to spend that much more time reading and writing, thinking and typing.
The likelihood that any other person of Roger's importance will ever have the time and dedication to devote to such a task strikes me as slim. (It's said that Marlene Dietrich opened and answered all of her own fan mail. Picture most any major contemporary box office draw doing likewise nowadays and you may fall off your chair laughing.)
After a Paris press screening for Lincoln, a few French colleagues asked me variations on, "Uh, back then could just anybody wander up to the president of the United States to ask him something or let themselves into the White House?" The comparison may sound grandiose, but there was no "security" around Roger. He wanted to hear from thoughtful readers all over the world and he did. Anybody was (and is) welcome to buy a ticket to Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (aka Ebertfest) in Champaign beside his hometown of Urbana, Illinois.
Roger encouraged a group of film enthusiasts from all over the globe, dubbed them his "far flungers" and in so doing forged a virtual community of people whose talent dazzles whether they happen to get paid for what they write or not.
I've been writing and broadcasting about film for 32 years. Every so often I'm plagued by the notion that maybe, just maybe, film is a frivolous field and I've been a dope to spend so much of my time watching movies. But then I remind myself that if a man as smart and gifted as Roger Ebert saw fit to make cinema HIS life's work, then writing about movies couldn't possibly be a dumb pursuit.
Anyone interested in an honest account of the trajectory of an important American life should read Roger's beautifully written memoir Life Itself and see the doc it inspired.
And anybody with a soft spot for the power of watching films with an audience in the dark should take a look at this glorious Ebert-inspired Zen Pencils illustration from Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than.
Life Itself screens at the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival.