Friday, April 05, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

Like so many Chicagoans, I feel a deep sense of loss now that Roger Ebert is gone. He was a great writer, an inspiring thinker, and a hilariously witty person, but I think what's hitting me hardest right now is that I know we just lost a man who was as "Chicago" as they come.

We know we have it hard here. Winters are long, taxes are high, poverty and violence and corruption and all the garbage I don't have to tell anyone about. We live it. We know it. We're not the international city that New York is. We don't care about fashion, we care about food. We don't care about fame, but we do care about fun. It's a city where people live and work, and we love it here.

Roger Ebert encapsulated this Chicago way better than any other writer I know of. Of course there was Studs Terkel, but Ebert did something more. He brought the Chicago way to the world without beating anyone over the head with "Chi-Town" shout outs. He stuck it out with the Sun-Times, but more than that he just believed in his passion. He fought his cancer tooth and nail, and he worked until the day he died. And this is only what every Chicagoan does. Motivated by some inner sense of wonder about life in the world, with all it's tragedies and beauties, moments and feelings, we take it all on the chin until we can't anymore. It's a paradox, really. The Chicago way is something we wouldn't trade for anything in the world, but sometimes it can be so hard and brutal that we feel totally exasperated by it. Somehow that exasperation pushes us forward. And then we laugh again. We think again. We love again.

Roger Ebert inspires all of this quietly. He doesn't have to talk about Chicago, but we know. We know he's more Chicago than Jim Belushi, Vince Vaughn, or Theo Epstein can ever dream of being. He puts in the work, and is rewarded. And the key is: the reward comes not as a result of the work, the reward is the work. This is the Chicago way. This was the Ebert way.

He was born in Urbana, went the University of Illinois there, and eventually brought his own annual film festival to the college town. I went to Ebertfest only once, back in 2006. My sweetheart was in her last year at U of I, and we had to take advantage before she moved up to Chicago with me. We saw Ebert interview John Malkovich, about a month before he had jaw surgery. We watched "Junebug," our first introduction to Amy Adams. Ebert called it the Overlooked Films Festival. He was always a champion for the good work. Budgets and names never mattered. He didn't care if other critics agreed with him or not. He didn't care if a film was supposed to be "important" or seminal. But if he saw good work on film, he gave it a thumbs up.

Such a simple gesture, for such an introspective and intelligent person. But, this is what set him apart from all other critics in all other fields. Most of us are too haughty. Ebert easily could've been, but he never was. So many of us critique art like some sort of enlightened gurus. Either that, or we're talentless hacks out for our own slice. We critique art from a faraway tower, but adding nothing to a conversation. "Thumbs up" sounds terribly hacky on the surface, but it's this simple genius that grounded him. He was readable, approachable, likeable. He understood that films were for everyone. High-minded or low-brow, it's all on the table, and it all deserves a fair shake.

He was, and will continue to be, one of the most inspiring Chicagoans of all time. I've written a few film reviews here and there, even though I am a music guy. And I write about sports and religion too. Because if Ebert taught me anything, it's that we have to work. I love music, and it will always be the first thing I want to write about, but if that swell in me comes up and tells me that I have to write about science or politics, I have to do it. In Chicago, you embrace the moment. When summer comes, you take the coat off, get on the bicycle, drink beer at a street festival, and live the best life you know how to live.

We're only here for a while, so we have to make it count. Ebert did. I hope to someday come just a fraction of a percentage close to getting out of life what he did. I will try. I will work.

I will miss Ebert's work. But he left so much for me to enjoy, laugh at, think about, and take inspiration from for years to come. Just watching his old clips on youtube is making it a little bit easier to swallow today. I am so thankful for this Chicagoan's life. I'll end this blog post with his last paragraph from his review of one of my favorite movies, and then, I will go to the movies myself.

"Kaufman's mission seems to be the penetration of the human mind. His characters journeyed into the skull of John Malkovich, and there is a good possibility that two of them were inhabiting the same body in "Adaptation." But both of those movies were about characters trying to achieve something outside themselves. The insight of "Eternal Sunshine" is that, at the end of the day, our memories are all we really have, and when they're gone, we're gone."

Thank you Roger Ebert. Rest in peace.

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