Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thank You, Mr. Ebert

I met Roger Ebert twice in my life (well, more than that, if you include sitting in the same screening room with him a couple dozen times). When I started as a film critic for The Chicago Flame during my UIC days, I was in a state of shock when I first walked into the private screening room on Lake Street in downtown Chicago. The film was Wind Talkers, a terrible Nicholas Cage vehicle about American Indian soldiers in World War II. Richard Roeper sat behind me. Jonathan Rosenbaum was down in front. Various journalists milled about. I turned around and saw Ebert walk in, and my heart was racing like crazy. If it hadn't been for him and Michael Petersen, my high school cinema teacher, I wouldn't have been in that room. I wouldn't have walked into the Flame's office to offer my services as a novice sophomore, freshly steeped in unabashed film snobbery. After the film, I walked up to him, completely interrupting his conversation with someone, and told him how great it was to meet him. He looked rightfully confused and irked that I had barged my way into his chat, but was nice enough to shake my hand. I never had the nerve to speak with him again. In fact, after the next screening, I avoided getting into the same elevator with him. I didn't know what networking was, and I was too embarrassed to try another attempt at a one on one conversation.

Mr. Petersen had my class read some of Ebert's reviews after we screened various films. The class taught me how to analyze film narratives, direction, and the filmmaking process. Mr. Petersen was right when he said "you'll never watch a movie the same way again." Like many people (as I've discovered through today's social media tributes), I began reading his reviews every time I watched a movie, and generally, I found myself having the same thoughts that he did, therefore giving me the confidence to start writing reviews for the college paper. It was never a case of "pfft, I could do better than this," but a genuine excitement along the lines of "hey, I can do this." My writing was very shaky then (you can read some of my college film writings here, under the tag "Chicago Flame Archives"), but my analysis and love of expression grew, along with my talent. I'm still nowhere near the writer he was, but he was a direct influence on me. And I'll never forget him for that, and I'll always be indebted.

Roger's writings veered into political arenas, and he proved just how adept he was at any subject he was passionate about. I most admired his call to politicians to publicly distance themselves from the right-wing loons spitting conspiracy theories about President Obama's birth certificate. In this, he proved his love for intelligence, reason, and education. He never suffered fools, and was one of the most engaging public commentators of our time.

I'm writing this out of emotion and a need to share my thoughts. I'm just one of thousands dealing with today's loss. Rest in peace, sir. You'll always be one of my writing idols.

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