On March 23rd, I received an email that made my heart nearly leap out of my chest with excitement. It was from Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert's wife and partner in all of his many enterprises. "Dear Matt," she began, "I would like to invite you to Ebertfest once more."
I don't know if I've ever replied to an invitation quicker or with more enthusiasm. I was fortunate enough to be invited to Ebertfest in 2011; it was, without question, one of the most pleasurable weeks I've ever had at a film festival. Getting invited back was a dream come true.
Twelve days later, Roger Ebert died.
As you're reading this, I'm on my way to Champaign, Illinois for the 15th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival. My feverish anticipation is now tempered with sorrow. I don't quite know what to expect from Ebertfest 2013 -- I have no clue what Chaz and the rest of the festival's dedicated staff have in store to honor the late Roger Ebert's passing. But I do know that Ebert's seat in the last row of the beautiful Virginia Theatre's expansive orchestra section will be empty. And when I see it, I'm probably going to cry.
In the wake of Ebert's death, almost every film critic on the planet -- and there are a lot of us these days -- has tried to come to grips with what the loss means to us both personally and professionally. How do we carry on without the man Vulture's David Edelstein described as "The Mayor of Movie Critic-Ville?" Last week at BuzzFeed, amidst a smart analysis of Ebert's career and his evolution from print to television to online star, Adam B. Vary pondered a few key questions: will we ever see another Ebert? Will there ever be another national television film critic who captures the public's attention and imagination? The answer to the first question is, I'm sure, no. The answer to the second is, I suspect, probably not. But while I'll mourn the former, I'm less concerned about the latter -- because in recent years Ebert himself used his power and fame to help shape a very different critical landscape than the one he conquered.
One of the most popular refrains in Ebert tributes, from critics who knew and worked with him to fans who never met him, was the sense of inclusiveness he promoted in the world of cinephilia. He brought new international voices to his website as his Far Flung Correspondents. He championed young critics as the hosts and contributors to his PBS series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" (yes, one of them was me). When aspiring writers emailed him for advice, he encouraged them. When they needed a champion, he backed them with film festivals, publicists, or skeptical colleagues. Rather than bemoan the end of a time when the country's critical community was small and isolated and dominated by himself, he embraced the possibilities of a landscape where smart critical voices could flourish in a worldwide community.
Someone asked me recently why I thought Ebert was so generous to young critics. I think there were a few reasons. For one thing, Ebert, despite his bonafides as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, received years of criticism from other film writers who believed "Siskel & Ebert" was dumbing down film criticism. Ebert knew how many people his show enlightened, and how many films he and Siskel had personally saved from obscurity by shining their show's bright spotlight on them. But he also knew what it was like to be looked down upon by others in his field, to be dismissed and underestimated. In other words, he was an Internet critic before there were Internet critics.
"Siskel & Ebert"'s enemies weren't that far off, though. Siskel and Ebert did champion a more democratic style of film criticism, one defined by smart, engaged commentary instead of haughty, autocratic elitism. Marketers seized on the thumbs, but fans knew they were far less important to the show than the back-and-forth they followed. Gene and Roger didn't just promote film criticism -- they promoted film conversation, and the willingness to look at the movies with equal doses of skepticism and passion. The movies are at their most magical when they inspire great discussions rather than bland consensus. Consensus is boring. Conversation is captivating.
This spirit of conversation is something that's been ingrained in Internet film culture from the very beginning, and I suspect it's this aspect of the web that Ebert found particularly appealing. It wasn't just that young online critics were inspired by Siskel and Ebert to go into film criticism -- it's that they applied the lessons of the show in their work. They weren't authoritarian despots -- they were conversation starters. They welcomed reader feedback. They started podcasts with two, or three co-hosts, where the free exchange of ideas, not consensus, was key.
I've reread a lot of Roger Ebert's reviews since April 4th, and I've rewatched a lot of old "Siskel & Ebert" clips. Yesterday, while I was thinking about this topic, Ebert's words near the end of this particular review of an obscure Tony Danza movie called "She's Out of Control" grabbed my attention:
"Go stand in the lobby and talk!"
Let me tell you what Ebertfest is like. You sit in the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. You watch three or four movies a day; classics like "Days of Heaven" and "The Ballad of Narayama" and exciting new works like "Oslo, August 31st" and "Escape From Tomorrow." And in between? You go out in the lobby -- or to Steak 'N Shake or a bar or the Illini Union -- and talk. With strangers you've never met, with critics and colleagues you haven't seen in months or years, with filmmakers who are there to show off their work but also to enjoy the work of others. At Ebertfest, there are no distribution deals negotiated, no red carpets hounded by paparazzi. The focus is squarely on the movies -- and the conversation. Each screening is followed by a lengthy Q&A between critics and filmmakers. Audience participation is encouraged. The point is not to exalt the films Ebert chose; the point is to use the films Ebert chose as the starting point for a hundred discussions that play out across the five days of the festival.
"Go stand in the lobby and talk!" It's not one of his most eloquent lines or catchiest phrases. But those seven words, I think, are exactly how we can honor Ebert and carry on his legacy at Ebertfest and every day after it, in theaters and Internet film sites around the world. We can engage with the movies, and with each other, with intelligence, passion, and wit.
As Ebert also says in that "She's Out of Control" review: "Life is precious, life is short." So let's use it wisely. I hope to see you at Ebertfest. I'll be sitting near Roger's old seat. And afterwards, I'll be in the lobby, ready to talk.