On Monday, April 1, the day after Easter, I was in Chicago with a few hours to kill before getting on an Amtrak train to go back south to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I went out to lunch with a friend, and he brought somebody who runs an AMC theater in the Near North Side, the one that shows the press screenings for critics. I mentioned to my friend’s guest that I had just moved back to Urbana, and was going to write about Ebertfest this year. He interrupted me and said Ebert wouldn’t be there this year—that he wasn’t doing well and had stopped going to his press screenings.
I got on my train and returned to Urbana thinking that what the guy had said about Ebert could probably count as a legitimate (albeit invasive) news item. On Thursday, April 4, I saw that Ebert had announced his “leave of presence,” thus breaking the news himself about a setback, health-wise. On Friday, April 5, in the morning, I saw the news that he had died. A couple of hours later, I walked outside to check the mail. Inside my mailbox was a manila envelope from the University of Illinois’s College of Media, and inside was my press pass to Ebertfest. I then headed toward the library, took a different turn than usual, and saw some flowers on the sidewalk in front of a house. “Somebody must’ve died,” I thought. Then I saw that there was a bag from Steak ’n Shakeamong the flowers, and a plaque that had been set in the concrete.
The plaque read:
ROGER EBERT RESIDENCE – 410 E. Washington Street, Urbana – Childhood home of Roger Ebert (b. 1942), Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, journalist, and television personality. Mr. Ebert lived at this address between 1942 and 1961.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Ebert was in our house on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, through the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times (with his movie reviews or his “Answer Man” column or his “Great Movies” essays), or on WTTW-Channel 11 with Siskel and Ebert (and then, later, Ebert and Roeper). He was the docent that led me into the world of opinions and judgment, and determining for oneself the quality of a work of art, the way John Steinbeck, for me, was a docent into the world of fiction, and Scorsese the world of filmmaking.
When I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, writing my first movie reviews for the student alt-weekly, Buzz, Ebertfest was the first real film festival I got to attend, and Ebert himself was the first important, powerful, famous person I got to interview (via e-mail, alas). It was during my final Ebertfest as a student, in 2008, that I finally got an article published in The Daily Illini, the student daily for which Ebert served as editor-in-chief in 1963. My piece was about Paul Schrader’s appearance at Ebertfest for a screening of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. My article was titled “Mishima and the Glory of Suicide.”
It was also at this Ebertfest that I was eavesdropping on a couple of people who, as it were, were talking about Ebert, and discussing his review of La Dolce Vita, which one of the guys in the conversation said was the best thing Ebert wrote. I looked it up when I got home that night and found that it ended like so:
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age. When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.
On Friday, April 5, the front page of The Daily Illini here in Champaign-Urbana was devoted entirely to Ebert. At the bottom of the page were reprints of two articles he wrote as an undergrad in the 1960s. One of them was his farewell address after stepping down as editor-in-chief. The other was one of the first movie reviews he published. It was from Oct. 4, 1961 and it was about La Dolce Vita. It began:
There is in La Dolce Vita a great deal to be puzzled about, and a great deal to be impressed by, and perhaps a great deal which we as Americans will never completely understand. Yet it is a fine motion picture. And we have the feeling that even those students who sat through its three hours with a measure of boredom came away convinced that something was there. It is this something, this undefined feeling being hammered at beneath the surface of the film, which gives it power and illumination. And it is this hidden message which contains the deep and moral indictment of the depravity which La Dolce Vita documents.
Maybe Ebert was a kind of American Marcello, a journalist living amongst the depravity but constantly observing it and contrasting it to some kind of solid moral standard. Ebert, after all, dropped out of a PhD program at the University of Chicago in order to write for the Sun-Times. Would he have fared better as an academic? It’s hard to imagine it. As he wrote in a “Great Movies” review of Last Year at Marienbad, “The idea, I think, is that life is like this movie: No matter how many theories you apply to it, life presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat.” Ebert was an intellectual journalist who wrote as if his readers could think and ask questions and care about the quality of what they paid to go see at a theater. He was down-to-earth and unassuming in a Midwestern kind of way. And while he’s taken his place in that pantheon of Illinois writers (which includes Dresier and Hemingway and Sandburg, and Hecht and Lardner and Algren, and Bellow and Ware and David Foster Wallace, and, hovering over all of them, the Great Emancipator himself, Honest Abe Lincoln), Ebert was one of the few who was willing to stay—who didn’t set off for New York, Washington, Hollywood, or Paris. Ebert stayed in Illinois, and let the movies come to him.