I never had the great fortune of meeting Roger Ebert. This past winter, I remember talking about the upcoming Smile Politely Bonfire Quarterly with Tracy Nectoux, our EIC, and how we would both love it if we could get Ebert to be a part of it. I lit up at the idea that maybe, just maybe, we could get him on board to either do an introduction or even grant us an interview. It had always been a dream of mine. I got chills and sweaty palms at even the thought of it.
We dared to dream because the truth is that Ebert was supportive of his hometown and his alma mater. Ebertfest has become this star-studded, red carpet event to me and I am so giddy every year with anticipation of the announcement of the lineup. Last year, I checked online feverishly, just trying to get a hint of who was coming and what films would be playing. And I succeeded. I found Ebert’s Sun-Times post before Ebertfest announced it and I claimed some minor personal victory. Not because I wanted to brag about it, but just because I was that excited about it. I was writing a lot of film reviews at the time and it was my thing. I wanted to know before others did.
I’ve lived in Champaign-Urbana for six years now but, in all honesty, I’ve only been absorbed by Ebertfest for half of that time. Let’s just say that I didn’t really get out much during my first few years here. Smile Politely helped changed that for me. It was Ebertfest in 2011 that I began writing film reviews for the first time since college. The film was Metropolis, an old classic that didn’t really need any new commentary, but I offered mine anyhow. The Alloy Orchestra accompanied the film and I was blown away. Thinking back, it was a pivotal movie-going experience for me and I will never look at the film the same. That’s how I often felt about Ebert’s reviews and his commentary on his site, which has found a home as one of my few non-work-related tabs on my computer over the last several years. He mixed critique, personality, and heart, by adding dimensions to art with his own. He taught us that “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” I wanted to do the same. I wanted people to feel something from my words, to heighten their experience of a film.
But my connection to Ebert, even though it wasn’t personal, goes back much further. Siskel and Ebert & the Movies was a steady presence in my not-so-steady childhood. I split time between my divorced parents in those days, but I always remember watching the show on Sunday mornings. Sometimes I didn’t have a clue what the movie was, or what the duo was talking about, but I always enjoyed how they found so much to say about them. That show, and Ebert specifically, got me interested in movies from a very young age. It developed my love for film trailers — which I can still just sit and watch for hours — and it established a foundation in myself for caring about film and, even more importantly perhaps, stories themselves. It led me to want to write and it led me to want to write about film.
Ebert’s passing has left a great void that will never be filled. And, while my role as a film reviewer at Smile Politely has decreased over the past six months, it will never go away. Even if I don’t write and publish a review of a film I see, Ebert will be still be there. I’ll think of him at Ebertfest in a couple of weeks and how the films I will be watching are the last films that he handpicked. If only I could capture it all. Nevertheless, Ebert will continue to have a presence in my critical thought and my emotional attachment to the stories that I see everywhere.