Roger Ebert, the longtime Chicago-based film critic, died today. He was 70 years old.
I'd be lying if I said that Ebert was a major influence on how I look at movies. I credit my film education to those who came before him, among them James Agee, Richard Schickel, Pauline Kael and, most of all, Manny Farber. I will admit, though, that anyone who has wrtten about, discussed or even thought about film over the past 30-odd years has been, in some way, affected by Ebert and his opinions.
Long before I even went to work for The Spokesman-Review, where I wrote film reviews between 1984 and 2009, I was familiar with Ebert. I ate up the Public Television show that he first did with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, though I loathed the thumbs up/thumbs down school of reviewing that they popularized. I just loved seeing the movie clips and arguing at the screen when my own opinions diverged, as they so often did.
But I always respected him. He always took film seriously, even when he championed movies I couldn't stand or trashed films that I loved. And in this day of anybody-can-be-a-critic, he knew how to get at the truth of a film, to hold the filmmaker up to high standards, and to point the spotlight at something other than the Hollywood blockbuster of the moment.
I ran into Ebert twice. Once was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, during a press junket for Steven Spielberg's 1989 film "Always." I walked into the press room and had to push past two short guys who were engaged in intense discussion. It was only afterward that I realized the two guys were Ebert and Spike Lee.
The other time was about a decade later, when I was making one of the annual treks that I made to Sundance for a decade. I was walking toward him on a Park City, Utah, sidewalk, and I decided to stop and introduce myself, to thank him for being an advocate for cinema. Then, when we were about 10 feet apart, he turned suddenly and walked across the street. Essentially shy myself, I didn't pursue. Opportunity missed.
And now he's gone. Others are still around. Anthony Lane, for example. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. Kenneth Turan and Richard Corliss. But Ebert's passing ends an era.
I never got a change to tell him how important he was, how much he would be missed. That, I guess, is what I'm trying to do now.