"Robert Egbert died."
This was a clueless co-worker making the announcement I'd already heard hours before via a friend's text. It grated on my nerves so badly I responded from my desk loudly, "RoGER EBERT, goddammit!"
The news of his passing was surprising, to say the least. He had only just announced "a leave of presence," via his blog, stating that he would continue to review movies, limiting himself to only writing about the films he actually wanted to see, while his invited friends and fellow critics reviewed everything else. This was to enable him to have the time to keep appointments for his medical treatment, as the cancer that had already cost him his lower jaw had returned. But, in an unexpected plot twist, he was suddenly gone, leaving behind a wealth of books, blogs, and of course reviews, including his latest (which had been my last status update), a barb-laden laundry list of script logic faults trashing the G.I. Joe sequel. I loved the review.
I sat with his passing for a long time yesterday. It feels like losing a much-loved quirky uncle. This is a face and voice I'd known since the 70's when he did Sneak Previews (hilariously lampooned as Sneakin' in the Movies in Robert Townsend's 80's classic Hollywood Shuffle, which got a Thumbs Up, by the way). Though successful, Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel jumped ship from Sneak Previews and created their own At The Movies. which ran from the early 80's into the late 2000's under a variety of names, and later paired Ebert with the departed Siskel's replacement, Richard Roeper.
"What did Ebert say?" was the first question I thought to myself whenever a new movie was released. I rarely disagreed with him. But no matter how angry I would get when I did disagree (his review of Kick-Ass comes to mind), I always came back to the guy,year after year, either watching At The Movies, reading his print reviews, or in more recent times, perusing his website every week to read the latest word on what's worth seeing.
Ebert was a star in his own right. Easily one of the most recognizable and respected critics of all time, he was the go-to critic of choice for myself and my fellow movie obsessive friends and relatives. He was yet another fat guy in glasses fanboy, a fellow film dork, but he got paid for the privilege. We admired his passion and film knowledge. A fluid writer, he could put you in his movie seat to feel his enthusiastic enjoyment or near zealous hatred of whatever film he was reviewing. But his real voice can be found in his blogs, particularly the recent entries regarding his illness. Nothing diminished his spirit or desire to just Enjoy Being.
I had the pleasure of sitting a few seats away from him, his wife, Chaz, and screenwriter/director Paul Schrader at a Taxi Driver screening in Dallas back in 1995. I wondered how many times Ebert had watched Scorsese's finest work. After the screening I approached him to chat. He really couldn't say how many times he'd actually seen it, but he did say it was "more than a few" and that a great film such as what we had just seen should seem new every time you view it. I recall him speaking highly of Gene Siskel, and of their long friendship.
"No, Gene's actually a great guy, we just have very opposing views from time to time, and very different ways of getting our points across," he said, after I asked if Siskel was a jerk off-camera too. In retrospect, I wish I'd asked better questions, but hey, I was a kid at the time.
Next thing I knew, we were taking about Taxi Driver with Paul Schrader.
"Oh My God, The Man That Wrote It!!" my mind screamed, trying to remain cool as Schrader traded anecdotes with Ebert.
I asked about the similarities of Taxi Driver to its near-follow up, Hardcore. I couldn't believe I was there with them. It felt like Hollywood in Texas. They were both saints to entertain me and my dumb questions. At heart, it was three movie nerds obsessing over what they love. Utterly joyous. I sheepishly asked them to sign my program, and that was that.
There are people who enjoy movies and there are people to whom film is religion. Ebert got that. One of his best quotes that sums up the WHY of movie-love went something like this, “Because we are human, because we are bound by gravity and the limitations of our bodies, because we live in a world where the news is often bad and the prospects disturbing, there is a need for another world somewhere, a world where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers live.” What I appreciate most, is that Ebert had room for characters like Travis Bickle in that world too.
I feel a hollow patch in my chest realizing that i will never get to read his take on Man of Steel or the next round of Star Wars movies, or enjoy him ripping apart the inevitable next installments of G.I. Joe andTransformers.
I will miss him like a much-loved quirky uncle.
Causes Colin Nasseri Supports