Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013.
I learned about his passing where everyone learns about the death of loved ones. Facebook. In between running around getting things together for our film, juggling a client and making sure my pregnant wife was taken care of, I glanced at my shiny iPhone and received the news.
And I stopped. For a few moments, but I stopped. That may not sound like much, but for someone who had been in perpetual motion for the last 24 hours stopping for a few moments was profound.
Roger Ebert is a Chicago hero and national treasure. He is the reason many of us know what film criticism is. He would sit in a suit jacket and off color sweater and battle it out with Gene Siskel every week for years. Even as a kid I waited in anticipation to see what he thought about the latest movies we planned to beg our parents to go see. “What did he say about Ghostbusters”? “Did he like Do the Right Thing”? We loved the arguing on the show but we always sided with Roger. If he liked it, we were probably going to go see it.
For years I equated Roger Ebert with going to the movie theatre. I was devastated when Gene Siskel passed. I was confused once the show went off the air. I was outraged when his second show went off the air. And I was stopped in my tracks once he died.
I met Chaz Ebert at the Black Harvest Film Festival in 2009. Roger was not there. The festival screened my short film opening night and afterwards she told us she liked it. She gave special kudos to the leading lady. And that’s when I realized I had come one step closer to checking off one more thing from my bucket list. Roger Ebert’s better half saw my short film. So it was only a matter of time before Roger Ebert reviewed my first feature film!
I would create the film, get it shown at the Angelika and get my very own review by Roger Ebert. Maybe he would love it and plaster his website with the review, berating everyone to go see it. Maybe he would hate it and write some clever, humiliating review that would in and of itself become famous (see here for examples). I didn’t care.
Roger Ebert equals movies. My film would only become real if Roger Ebert reviewed it!
On April 4, 2013 Roger Ebert passed away. And there is no way possible for him to ever review my first feature film.
Old Folks Homes and why Roger Ebert never reviewed my first feature film
This past weekend my wife and I took a trip to St. Louis. While there we visited an older family friend. A widower well into her eighties, she had recently moved from her home into a Catholic senior citizen center. We walk in to immaculately clean floors, overwhelmingly polite nuns and nurses and any number of jazzy older people in wheel chairs.
We came to our family friend’s room and there she was watching a Rawhide marathon. She wasn’t bitter. She was fully alert. But she was also done with many things in her life. She had reached the age where most people alive knew her only as an older woman. Most days were behind her and she was fine with that.
But watching the people in the home brought a flash of insight to me. I thought to myself, “One day, we all will end up with more days behind us than in front of us. One day everything we wanted to do and achieve won’t matter anymore, because we would have achieved all we could up to that point. Our time is finite. We give out. That’s how we’re designed. One day we’ll…oh shit, Roger Ebert will never review my first feature film”!
Yes. That’s actually what rushed through my mind at that exact moment. It wasn’t his fault. I’d said I would make that film soon after that night in 2009. But here it was 2013. What happened?
In 2002 Roger Ebert was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer. It was the same cancer my uncle would pass away from a few years later. When my uncle found out he had thyroid cancer he came to grips with the idea of him dying soon. Roger Ebert did not. Roger Ebert fought the good fight for another eleven years. He lost his voice. Had surgery until his face was unrecognizable. But he carried on.
And suddenly, Roger Ebert wasn’t the ‘movie review guy’ anymore. He had become bigger than that. He wasn’t Chicago’s hero anymore. He was an international hero. Prolific is an understatement. A daily blog, books, a television program, a film festival…Roger Ebert is more renowned for those eleven years than all the years prior.
And what the hell was I doing all that time? I worked on a bunch of film ‘stuff’, started a production company, this, that and the other, but I didn’t finish a feature film so Roger Ebert could review it!
In eleven years he was prolific. In four years I was…busy at best? Maybe it was because I didn’t feel the urgency. Maybe I didn’t come face to face with my legacy every day. Maybe I wasn’t as passionate about making films as Roger Ebert was about watching and dissecting them. Maybe deep down I was scared that Roger Ebert would use one of his clever quips to dismiss whatever film I would have made.
Or maybe it was because I didn’t have cancer. Maybe I didn’t realize that one day I could be in a wheel chair in a Catholic senior citizen home. Maybe I hadn’t realized that one day everything I wanted to do and achieve wouldn’t matter anymore because I would have achieved all I could up to that point.
My time is finite. I give out. I’ve been designed that way.
No more waiting in anticipation for his review of my film. He’s already given it. By passing away he told me it was taking too damn long! By living life to the fullest he told me to put everything I’ve got into it or don’t do it at all.
On April 4, 2013 Roger Ebert passed away. He was prolific. He lived life to the fullest. He never reviewed my first feature film. And because of that he taught me so much.