Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

Everyone has a favorite memory of beloved film critic Roger Ebert; whether it's a clever remark he made on his long-running television show, a favored sentence from one of his thousands of movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, a passage from one of his many books, or a cherished personal encounter with a man who was, by all accounts, friendly and approachable and happy to discuss the movies with anyone who was interested.

My own favorite memory of Roger Ebert comes from an old episode of Siskel and Ebert and The Movies that aired sometime in the late '80s. The format of the show was simplicity itself; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel would alternately introduce a film that was currently playing in theaters, some clips would be shown, the two critics would share their impressions of the film, maybe some banter, and then a verdict would be rendered: thumbs up or thumbs down. That was it. And you always kind of hoped that they'd disagree on the film in question. When the two disagreed, you got a fuller sense of what they really thought of the film, good or bad. There was something charming about the way they wanted each other to appreciate what was unique about a given film, or what made it uniquely awful.

I would've been about ten years old when this particular episode aired. In addition to reviewing whatever Hollywood films were current that week, none of which I remember, there was a review of Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Santa Sangre. And these were, unquestionably, the strangest, most unsettling images I had seen in my life to that point. I remember Ebert, in voice-over, explicating a scene where an armless woman was playing the piano with the aid of her son, who had slipped his arms through the sleeves of his mother's dress. There was something off-kilter in the acting, and the candle-lit set appeared baroque, almost operatic. The succeeding images were dreamlike and menacing, evocative of dark mysteries that I couldn't possibly understand. Needless to say, Ebert gave it a thumbs up.

That peculiar memory resurfaced at the news of Roger's passing, those four or five minutes of a decades-old episode. I've been thinking about that, how appropriate it is that Roger Ebert used his popular weekly TV show to highlight a little-known art-film about magic, vengeance, and religious fanaticism, directed by a Chilean-French filmmaker whose name almost certainly meant nothing to the vast majority of viewers. Roger Ebert loved the movies. Big movies and small ones, great movies and otherwise. Roger Ebert loved the movies. It was an enduring, lifelong love-affair, and we were fortunate to share it with him.