The last of the big gun movie critics left us today after his long battle with cancer. Roger Ebert is/was a titan in the film criticism business. His loss touches all of us who watch films as he has been the gold standard for so long. Everyone knows this and I doubt I can add much to what has been said since news broke earlier today that he had passed.
I do want to share my one brush with Ebert, though. I was living in Chicago (Evanston, actually) while my wife was getting her PhD. We were returning from a trip to Indiana and we were coming back on the Toll Road, that interminable stretch of constant construction that lies between Indiana and Illinois. As we are pulling up to one of the toll booths, I see a black Nissan Pathfinder ahead of us with the license plate that read: MOVIES and I saw the salt-colored hair of the man driving it. I immediately announced to my wife that it had to be Ebert. She of course told me I was crazy in only the way that she can with such charm that even I can’t get upset with her. Determined to prove her wrong, I tried maneuvering to get closer weaving as he did through the dense traffic as we got closer and closer to the booths. Through the honks and anger of the other drivers I was able to finally pull up next to the Pathfinder right as we reached the booths. Sure enough, I looked over and there he was, scraping for change to pay the 75 cent toll. When he finally looked over at the two of us, our necks craned, some dumbass smile pasted across my face, he graciously waved, deposited his coins in the hand of the tollbooth attendant and motored through the booth. Afterwards, I gave my wife the business about me being correct and she being wrong (not something that happens terribly often) and drove the rest of the way up the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Dr./Sheridan Rd. to my condo with a smile on my face.
I don’t know that this encounter would have done much for most people, but that was the effect Mr. Ebert had on me. He and I love movies in the same way – we are willing to sit in darkness and watch countless stories unfold before our eyes and be transported to places unfathomable. His skill with words and love of cinema will be missed dearly.
Here is my favorite quote from Ebert and one I take to heart:
“There are no right answers. The questions are the point. They make you an active movie watcher, not a passive one. You should not be a witness at a movie, but a collaborator. Directors cannot make the film without you. Together, you can accomplish amazing things. The more you learn, the quicker you’ll know when the director is not doing his share of the job. That’s the whole key to being a great moviegoer. There’s nothing else to it.”
Rest in peace, fair sir. May you be somewhere now talking film with Fellini and arguing with Siskel.