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From the point of view of someone who knew him since he had the luck to be assigned the job of film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Thursday night’s memorial to Roger Ebert movingly celebrated a true man for all seasons, a massively prolific and influential figure in his professional life whose positive spirit and fundamental good nature touched countless lives.
Certainly no other member of his profession could have drawn the more than the 2,000 people who turned up on a chilly wet night at the breathtakingly restored Chicago Theater for three hours of heartfelt tributes from more than 20 friends, colleagues and family members, excerpts from his TV shows, private videos and the exuberant singing of the Soul Children of Chicago gospel choir.
It’s unusual that a tribute of this sort comes close to expressing or elucidating the full and true nature of the person in question and especially rare for it to be done without sentimentality or mawkishness.
But the combined and uncoordinated testimonies drew an impressively fulsome portrait of a man who lucked into the right job at the right time and was an old-style smart-talking and hard-drinking Chicago newsman at heart.
The testimonies portrayed a man who transformed his innate working-class sympathy for the underdog into the championing of work by underfunded independent filmmakers and artists of color, took fame in stride and never stopped encouraging younger critics and had an emotional hole in his life that was filled by his marriage to the adored Chaz in 1992.
They told of a man who, after the onset of illness 10 years later that eventually robbed him of his voice, not only stared down cancer for another decade but became even more productive and spiritually evolved, not in the specific religious sense but in feeling the impulse to contribute only good to the world and to those in his life.
No one said it in so many words, but in his later years he became a resolved man, not only smart but wise, and emotionally whole.
To hear such words and to imagine such a life trajectory applied to a professional critic of any kind is close to startling. Critics, after all, are supposed to be curmudgeons, unfulfilled artists who most easily make their reputations by how mercilessly cutting, vicious and mean they can be. There are certainly filmmakers out there who can remember nasty things Roger wrote about them over the years. But no one would deny that critics need to call them like they see them and that a large percentage of movies need to be scolded for their shortcomings.
It’s not that Roger would avoid carving up a turkey and eating it too. But he preferred to emphasize the good. As publicist-turned-filmmaker Ana Duvernay testified, when Roger really liked something, he would plug it relentlessly, week after week, if necessary, to keep a film alive long enough for it to possibly catch on. Director Gregory Nava, a very close friend who was present when Roger died and effectively organized the memorial, recalled that Roger was there at the very beginning to rally on behalf of the independent American cinema when such a movement didn’t even exist.
Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker, in one of the evening’s most impressively passionate speeches, lauded Roger as the most influential critic in the country and marveled at his friend’s tireless and passionate crusades on behalf of films he loved and that needed support. Telluride Film Festival co-founder and director Tom Luddy noted that it was Roger who suggested that he bring Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon to the then-dilapidated Chicago Theater for a four-night run, an event that probably saved the Loop’s last movie palace from the wrecking ball and led to its eventual restoration in 1986.
The ultimate message that the tribute conveyed about the lessons taught by Roger’s life is that what is important is to build up, not tear down; to extend a helping hand, not discourage or ignore, and to maximize life. At the end of the tumultuous evening, Chaz allowed that she didn’t think, after his last diagnosis, that he would go so soon; “I thought we had another two years,” she admitted. But not only will she be carrying on at the EbertFest next week, she’ll be heading to Cannes next month. “Roger told me, ‘You have to go.’ ”
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