"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Monday, April 8, 2013

Roger Ebert: Thoughts On His Passing


I have to admit, initially I was taken aback by the outpouring of grievances across the country on the passing of Roger Ebert.  Unquestionably he is, and has been for decades, our nation’s pre-eminent master of cinematic journalism.  What surprised me is how many people really truly seemed to care about his death.  It’s as though we have lost a Hemingway, a Picasso, an Einstein.  This past Sunday night I stayed up for over two hours, reading and watching tributes to Mr. Ebert.  It all makes sense to me.  We have lost one of our geniuses.

Now, why in a blog dedicated to neighborhoods am I waxing poetic about the loss of a film critic?  Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that beyond our day jobs, Roger and I share the exact same passion.  We are advocates for, and lovers of, our city.  Ebert could have had any newspaper job on the planet.  With their proximity to abundant filmmaking, New York and Los Angeles would have made more sense than Chicago.  Instead, the larger-than-life cinema guru chose to live here.  Sure a whopping salary didn’t hurt, but it’s not as though his writing hasn’t been in high demand for decades, especially after winning the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  I mean, does America’s second-most-read critic, whomever that may be, have half the readership as Mr. Ebert and his website?

I actually have met Roger once.  He came to a book signing at our mutual alma mater, the University of Illinois.  Coincidentally, I was a former film critic at The Buzz, the entertainment spin-off of the school paper The Daily Illini.  I guess we did have another thing in common.  He was in town, promoting his annual film festival.  The previous Christmas, knowing I was a fan of his writing, my parents had bought me a recently published collection of his reviews, entirely of films that he loathed.  I was second in line at the signing and am still humored by what he wrote, undoubtedly to everyone else with the same book as well, but light-hearted and charming just the same.  He flipped to the title page of I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie, and wrote beneath it, “but you’re OK!  Roger Ebert.”

My moment with Mr. Ebert
This was part of Ebert’s allure.  Of course he took his job seriously, but I also think he got it: he was a millionaire just for watching and writing about movies.  I mean, if that’s not fun, then I dunno what is.  What made his reviews so perfect, his readers so loyal, was his humor and his openness.  His reviews weren’t the formal, academic writings of say Pauline Kael.  Rather, they were insights into the man himself.  He would reflect on how a movie made him feel about his youth, what growing up in Urbana in the 1950s was like.  He shared his life experiences with us, and he was no longer the ink on the paper or the font on the computer.  No, his reviews often made us feel like the interaction was personal, not a college textbook.

I never thought about it until today.  I have never read an author as religiously as Ebert, not even close.  I had my short-sustained Steinbeck thing in 8th grade, and in rapid succession read Bret Easton Ellis’s first three novels in college.  But I always moved on to the next thing of interest.  But as long as I can recall having the internet, the first thing that I had to do on Friday was read Ebert’s reviews for the films opening that weekend.  This, of course, came after semi-regular viewings of Siskel & Ebert for many years before that.  His reviews inspired me to take an interest in foreign film too.  Without his sage advice, I may never have heard of Ran or Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the two films I consider the greatest I’ve ever seen, both entirely sold to me by his wholehearted acclaim.

We’ve lost one of our great Chicagoans.  Roger Ebert was every bit as important to writing (not just cinematic journalism) as Kurosawa, Herzog, and Spielberg are to filmmaking.  He is every bit as important to Chicago’s cultural legacy as Burnham, Trotter, and Jordan.  In his final blog post on rogerebert.com, published two days before his passing, he discussed his plans for the future.  Whether or not he knew he wouldn’t live to see out any of them, his final communication to his readers is the stuff of the greatest poets: heartbreaking, understanding, prescient, hopeful, humorous, and loving...

"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

Yes you will, Roger.  Hope you’ll save us a seat.

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic Mike! I am one of those you write about that truly was deeply saddened by Roger's death. I felt like I got to know him so well just through his writing. I would religiously read his reviews (always after seeing the film!), and he never failed to bring great insights, usually very personal in nature. Also, ever since he lost his ability to speak I have been glued to his blog. I was drawn to his candidness and easy ability to discuss anything on his mind, from his ongoing physical battles, to his thoughts on evolution, to existence itself! I loved that he kept growing and reaching new audiences, and honing his craft until the very day he died.

    And just like you Mike, Roger introduced me to the greats as well, like Kurosawa (I agree Ran is mind blowing!), Kubrick, and Herzog. The great thing is that all his archived reviews remain. And My goal is to watch all of his Great Movies collection in order. That will take a few years!

    But there will always be a little sadness every Friday, knowing Roger will not be around to discuss the latest and greatest films out there.

    Thanks Mike for your thoughts!

    P.S. over the last year I have been going through the Kurosawa catalog and have fallen in love with nearly all of his films. Ran, Ikiru, Rashoman, Seven Samurai... WOW! I NEED to see these films on a big screen!! BTW, if you ever see a Kurosawa film festival anywhere I am in!

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  2. Thanks Paul, really appreciate your thoughts. I know you were as loyal a follower of his writings as they come. Agree to, after watching a movie, I like to go back and see what he thought about it, and where we agreed and disagreed. Regardless, he always caught something I missed, and in so many ways made me appreciate a lot of the films that I already loved even more.

    Will gladly catch a Kurosawa film fest with you. From time to time they show Kurosawa on the BIG BIG screen at the Music Box Theatre in Lake View. If you're planning on coming to town sometime I'm gonna keep my eye open for that. Those are all great films. Definitely check out "Throne of Blood", Kurosawa's take on MacBeth. The ultra-violent ending is literally entrancing.

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  3. Throne of Blood is in my queue already, thanks. Yes, keep me posted on any big Chicago movie happenings!

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