Yesterday evening I received a Google news alert that two of my favorite movies, The Last Picture Show and Dazed and Confused, will be shown as a double feature at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. I've already seen a proper projection of Richard Linklater's ode to 70s ennui, but I'd promised myself I'd fly anywhere in the country to see Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece on the big screen. I'd waited years for this opportunity. One automated email and I was already planning my moviegoing pilgrimage (just an hour's drive away!). Ten minutes later I saw the news that Roger Ebert died.
Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, but he also wrote the screenplay to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He failed to appreciate Starship Troopers, but at least he loved Dark City. He saw through the blood-soaked finale of Bonnie and Clyde to spot a masterpiece, and he recognized a nihilistic genius in Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. When Vincent Gallo made fun of his weight, Ebert replied, "It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny." Then when Gallo revised his film, Ebert praised the transformation.
Roger Ebert took movies, and people, as they came, accepting them on their own terms. He'd call them on their cowardice or their senselessness, he'd hurl epithets from the balcony, but he'd stand up from the seats and shout the praises for any movie willing to deliver on its promises (We might want to reconsider our expectations afterward, and he reflected upon those implications too). Ebert inspired me to read A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Pauline Kael, but he never called for his readers to sacrifice the pleasure of movies for the highfalutin demands of "cinema."
Ebert studied movies and somehow also managed to affirm that we should strive to love others, to live well, to be tolerant, and to take risks. He championed unknown creators, embraced social media, and shared freely of his thousands of reviews. He wrote a book about rice cookers (The pot and how to use it) after losing part of his jaw to cancer. He communicated more widely and more broadly after losing his capacity for speech. And only a couple days before his death at 70 did he announce his "Leave of Presence."
I never met Roger Ebert. I never attended one of his famed frame-by-frame screenings. I never even commented on his insanely prolific blog. But I imagined that I knew him. I could visualize this geeky kid growing up in Illinois. I could imagine him trying to look cool when he summoned the guts to drink with Mike Royko. And I could guess at the pleasures he found at the opportunity to collaborate with Russ Meyer, an artist who shared his predilection for a particular aspect of the female anatomy. Roger Ebert was cultured but not uptight, passionate but not dogmatic, respectful but not afraid to stick the analytical knife. He was the kind of person I'd like to be.