I never met Roger Ebert and I doubt he knew of me directly. Yet he played an important if brief role in my graduate education that I’d like to share in his memory.
During my stint at the U of C, I volunteered in various roles at Doc Films. For me, to spend evenings threading a projector or dreaming up (and sometimes programming) film series with fellow movie buffs was a welcomed antidote to the removed, sometimes too abstract, relationship one has with cinema as a student of critical theory and cultural studies. In 1998, for a series I co-curated comprised of films by foreign directors with the idea of America and American culture as central themes, a fellow Doc volunteer, who also worked as a projectionist for Roger’s continuing ed course at the Graham School, asked Roger one night for his advice on movies we should consider including. His response surprised me: W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, 1971), not the kind of film I would have ever expected from the critic whom I had dismissed over the years as too mainstream and forgiving in his tastes, responsible for reducing film criticism to thumbs pointed in one direction or another. The obscurity and uniqueness of the suggestion and (I’m told) the alacrity with which it was offered opened my eyes to better appreciate and understand the breath of Ebert’s knowledge of film history and his unpretentious appreciation of movies, in all forms. For him, it may very well have been a passing thought at the end of a long day or week, one of countless recommendations made over a brilliant, sustained, and unprecedented career (even then) but in my mind’s eye, I felt squarely put in my place knowing there was still much to learn and to see.
No doubt my story will be joined by many other, perhaps similar, remembrances in the coming days and weeks, of the small yet profound ways Roger Ebert touched our lives. It has always been reassuring to know he was there to turn to — whether through his movie reviews, books, blog, interviews, or in casual conversation wrapping up a course screening — ready to share his passion for movies and his love of life.