Champaign-Urbana lost one of our own last Thursday. Roger Ebert’s passing has prompted reactions from Robert Redford to President Barack Obama. He was beloved all over the world, and next week’s film festival will be a bittersweet experience for most of us in C-U. Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (which will always be the Overlooked Film Festival to me) was one of the selling points that my spouse used to get me to move here, and in twelve years I’ve not missed one.
Roger Ebert and Tim Blake Nelson, Ebertfest 2011
I’m perhaps not the best choice to write our cover story on Roger Ebert (but other essays published today will make up for this). I certainly won’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable about the man. Like most people my age, I came to know Ebert through his television show Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. At that time in my life, I didn’t watch a lot of movies. I didn’t have HBO. But throughout the late eighties and nineties one of my favorite Sunday shows was Siskel & Ebert. I enjoyed their chemistry, their obvious friendship, and their arguments. And as the years passed, I came to value their opinions, especially Gene Siskel’s. He and I had equal taste in movies: if he liked it, so would I; if he didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t either. Ebert, on the other hand, was different. If he liked a movie, chances are I would too, but his dislike of a movie didn’t necessarily mean I’d dislike it as well. For fifteen years, that was the beginning and the end of what I knew about Roger Ebert. And then I moved to Champaign-Urbana in 2001.
Before moving here, though I was aware of Ebert’s influence on Hollywood, I had no idea of his impact on our greater culture. I stopped watching Siskel & Ebert when Gene Siskel died. I did not read Ebert’s film reviews or journal. I have not read any of his books. I don’t follow him on Twitter. But in the twelve years that followed my move here, as I came to make Ebert’s hometown my own, I’d occasionally learn things about him that have nothing to do with his film criticism. Every once in awhile, his name would come up in various topics that are important to me:
His prompting of Michael Moore to make one the most interesting (and bravest) Oscar speeches of all time
- His blunt, honest thoughts on religion
His musings on Chief Illiniwek
His support for marriage equality
His moving homage to our twin cities
These, more than his film criticism, interested me. If he’d only been a brilliant film critic his entire life, that would have been impressive enough. But Ebert was more than that. Much more. Whether I agreed with his opinions or not, I came to admire the man behind them a great deal. He seemed kind, funny, thoughtful, passionate, stubborn, and intelligent. My favorite kind of person.
Roger Ebert penned a beautiful phrase (“It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine”) to describe one of the ugliest movies ever made. He often made us laugh our butts off while reading negative reviews of movies we may not have even seen. And he inspired some of the most eloquent eulogies I’ve ever read. That, more than anything, is testament to whom he was.
So, I don’t know that much about Roger Ebert. But what I do know about him is that he cared about people and art and life. He never stopped being a citizen of Champaign-Urbana. He felt about C-U the way we at Smile Politely do: He celebrated our twin cities and gave back to them everything he’d gotten out of them. And if I feel a loss at Ebert’s passing (and I do), I know that those who did follow Ebert’s career — those who’ve read his journal and books, those who’ve met him — feel a much greater loss. This is why Smile Politely, for today, is providing a space for ourselves and our readers to express that loss. Roger Ebert loved Champaign-Urbana, and we at Smile Politely return that love.
Roger and Chaz Ebert and Tilda Swinton, Ebertfest 2011
Feature image credit: Everett Collection
Image of Siskel & Ebert from the Ebertfest Facebook page.