I really was stunned and saddened to hear that Roger Ebert died. He was such a constant in my media life. I loved his writing and his lively discussions on At the Movies with Gene Siskel and later with Richard Roeper.
For a few years I took Roger’s film class through the University of Chicago’s adult ed program. It was tough to get a seat in the class. The first time I took it we watched Paul Schrader‘s films and Schrader even came to our class to screen Light of Day.
The following semester to cut down on students who would have to be turned away when the class moved from Spertus College to a screening room on Michigan Avenue, Ebert chose to focus on films by French director Robert Bresson. Bresson’s films are tough as he rejects everything Hollywood loves: surprise endings, professional actors, music, you name if it’s in a blockbuster, it’s not an element of a Bresson film. I love a good challenge I signed up again. Even in the smaller new space, the class was full and some were turned away. A lot of the people had been taking the class for 18 years by then and many were knowledgeable film viewers. Ebert never put anyone down or carried himself as if he was smarter or better than us. In fact, several times he’d point out that the only reason he was teaching the course was the roll of a die. Hardly, since he was an expert, but he conducted the class with such respect for all.
Usually the class followed the films of one director and we were able to see his evolution or what made him tick. I recall taking the Schrader, Bresson, Billie Wilder classes, but I think there were others. I do remember winning the Beat Roger Oscar contest in the class one year. Talk about a fluke. I got 8 or 10 books, one autographed, which I’ll have to dig out.
Beyond the class, Roger’s website and reviews continued me to seek out challenging films, to expand what I watched. Thus I discovered great films, old and new.
I admire how Roger wrote, how he curated outstanding web content on his blog, how he taught me to view films and how he exhibited joy in film. He wasn’t just a public intellect, he was a happy one. How often do we see that? He cared passionately about film, didn’t take himself to seriously, was honest about his likes and dislikes – even his early feelings for Siskel. He lived well. I was always awed by how bravely and openingly he continued to live and work while battling cancer.
It’s sad that he lost that battle, but we were lucky to have him all these years. For a reminder of Ebert’s passion and insight, take a look at the Chicago Tonight video, which you can watch online here.