Write Fast: Remembering Roger Ebert
by B. Ruby Rich
There will be stories! Roger's death is unimaginable. I know we're all mortal, but I still haven't absorbed the shock of it. One thing is certain: the man lives on, now and in the future, for the words he wrote, and those he spoke so well while he still could, and for the actions and gestures and generosity of the man in his position in the world of film and the universe of humans in general. But also, I'm certain, in the wonderful stories we'll all be telling about him forever more. Here then are a few of mine.
In 1972, I moved to Chicago and fell in love with the city right from the start. It had two daily newspapers, the scrappy Sun-Times and the well-heeled Tribune, and in the great tradition of the Chicago newspaper wars, their film critics were engaged in a perennial feud. Television upped the ante. Luckily, they both loved the Film Center where I was busily curating films through much of the '70s. While I worked much more with Gene and the Tribune, it was to Roger that I delivered all our edgier films that I loved the most.
From the very beginning, it was Ebert who championed filmmakers trying to do something different. Maybe it was that script he'd written a few years earlier for the notorious Russ Meyer: "Beyond The Valley of the Dolls." He championed films that knocked down censorship walls around matters of sex, no surprise for a guy in the era of 'sexual liberation,' but he was just as adamant on matters of race and class and, most surprisingly for a newspaperman, form and style. He championed Fassbinder films, for instance. And, yes, the guy who wrote about babes for Russ Meyer also supported feminist films, from the beginning: I remember delivering filmmaker Jill Godmilow for her interview, mid-afternoon, to his regular 'office' of the time, O'Rourke's Pub. He was still drinking back then. Keep in mind that it was Chicago in the '70s: drinking was a journalist's job, as much as writing. I used to take friends to visit the Billy Goat pub when they came to town. It was the newspaperman's bar, located right behind the Sun-Times building, so while it wasn't Roger's haunt, it couldn't have been more convenient.
When Ebert won a Pulitzer, the first film critic ever to do so, he didn't change at all. He was a regular guy who loved movies, loved his journalist film pals, loved film festivals, and everything else old and new, local and international, accepted or disreputable. He was a stand-up guy, as they used to say. I was shocked, years later, when he told me that he only recently had reconciled himself to the fact that he was a film critic. Huh? He'd long had the hope of becoming a novelist, he confessed, but realized that wouldn't happen. I could hardly believe that the film critic most identified with the profession, and most passionate about its works and workings, could ever think of himself otherwise. He admitted it, then recommitted himself. With Ebert, you could be sure, it was always full-steam ahead.
He was always ahead of the pack, whether that meant going to Cannes when the newspaper universe's daily reviewers generally couldn't imagine such a thing or starting his own film festival in a Midwest town to gather support for the 'overlooked' films he cared about. He was a scholar, too, whose anthology of writings on cinema is still one of the best for the general reader–or general student. Those who knew only "TV Roger" didn't get the measure of the man. His taste in film was so generous and eclectic that many didn't realize how sophisticated it was. Those who grumbled that he was a shill for the industry, and yes some did, misunderstood his deep affection for films and those who made them. He was a fan in an expert's body. He loved cinema and never stopped caring about it, but he also cared about its social dimensions, unlike many other full-time critics and fan-boys. Filmmakers and audiences loved him equally. And I'm proud to say, so did his colleagues (except once in a while, when the temptation to throttle him won out).
Roger was always sensitive to questions of race. He's the one who told a young Oprah Winfrey to think about syndication. He's the one who married Chaz. But he wasn't concerned only about African American issues. I was at Sundance the year that he stood up in the audience and defended a young Justin Lin when he was attacked for his debut feature, "Better Luck Tomorrow." Ebert jumped up in the audience and delivered a powerful counterpunch to political correctness when Lin was faulted for making an 'amoral' movie instead of a screed for Asian-American goodness. Of course, Lin went on to launch the "Fast and Furious" franchise.
He always cared about the past as much as the future. In January 1981, soon after I'd left Chicago to move to New York City, I ran Roger in the lobby of the Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. We had both, separately, just seen the original premiere of "Napoleon" (superbly represented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2012). With a score by Francis Ford Coppola's dad Carmine and a full presentation made possible by Kevin Brownlow's work and Coppola's resources, it was revelatory. Ebert had flown in from Chicago to see it and was being ushered out of the theater by the late (and legendarily pugilistic) publicist Renee Furst, who the week before had refused to help me when I called to plead for a ticket. I was new in town, I didn't count. Then Roger, thrilled as always to see a colleague, enveloped me in a bear hug and invited me along for a late dinner in a theatre-district dive. Renee didn't miss a beat: without blinking, she embraced me, too -- and picked up the tab. Roger's approval was enough for her, and I felt I'd "arrived" in New York.
Ebert issued his approval again, some years later, when I was already settled in San Francisco: he called to ask if I'd like to come onto his television show during what I liked to call the interregnum, that period in between Siskel's death and the selection of his replacement (eventually, Roeper, hewing to the tradition of two Chicago guys talkin' 'bout movies). I did and we had a blast. I was even invited back again for a second appearance: on that occasion, we got to review "Boys Don't Cry," which thrilled me. Two thumbs up, please. I got a glimpse of Roger's world, the symbol of that televisual movie-theatre seat, and of course, the power of the thumb. Did you know? That was really his thumb on the screen logo. Every week of the interregnum, the crew dutifully shot each visiting critic's thumb to go up on the board next to Roger's.
Once I thought about becoming a daily newspaper critic and even went so far as to apply for a job, which naturally I didn't get: my taste would be a hopeless fit for regular commercial reviewing. When I called Roger to ask for a reference, though, my taste was the least of his concerns. "Can you write fast?" he asked, worrying that since my main experience was in weeklies, I would choke on the next-day pace of his beat. I assured him I could, not letting him know how close I'd come to missing even those weekly deadlines at times. "Oh good" he said. "That's all that matters." Not quite, Roger, not quite: it's which words he chose to file that made him matter.
In 2001, I came the closest I've ever come to working in television as on-screen correspondent for a new show, "Independent View," on KQED in San Francisco, eventually picked up around the country and even the world. During that time, my producers found out that Roger Ebert was coming to town and thought it would be a good idea to turn the tables on him: I'd interview him this time and invite him onto our show. What fun it was. Roger came to my house, we sat in the living-room, and he reminisced about his career. I hope those outtakes are stored safely somewhere, because Chicago's wonderful Steve James ("The Interrupters," "Hoop Dreams") has already started work on a documentary about Ebert that's produced by Scorsese, and now he's lost his main subject. I know there's no shortage of televisual Eberts out there, but I think that this one, in which he's talking uncharacteristically about himself, is special. That's the thing about Roger: we all thought he was special, just for us, because he made it so abundantly clear that we were special to him.
Love you, Roger. Miss you, always.
B. Ruby Rich is a professor of Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, where she directs the Social Documentation M.A. Program. Her book "New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut" is out this month from Duke.