Mr. Ebert Goes to Urbana

April 27, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I'm not the only one expressing this sentiment this weekend: Welcome back, Roger.

Oh, I know he hasn't really been away. He has written occasional reviews and other columns for the Chicago Sun-Times and has been hard at work rehabbing, but there's something reassuring about a visual confirmation. Words are amorphous; images, while they don't always tell the whole story, are not.

Does Roger look the same today as he did a year ago, before the surgery that had dire and unexpected consequences? Of course not, but considering all he's been through, he's in good shape. Would that I could look as good had I gone through a similar ordeal – and would that my attitude might be as open and upbeat. His mind is as nimble as ever, and that's the most important thing. Society puts too much of a premium on physical appearance. Nevertheless, I think Roger's concern that people will be unkind when they see photos of him is misplaced. The overwhelming sentiment, I believe, will be positive, as it was Wednesday night when he received standing ovations. He is as beloved as any non-acting television personality. The image he projects on the small screen is the real Roger Ebert. Away from the camera, he is much the same: engaging, intelligent, passionate, patient, and generous with his time and talent.

I'm sure Roger is aware of the impact he has had on many lives. It would be disingenuous for me to start with anyone but myself. Although Roger didn't have anything to do with my becoming a film critic, he became - for lack of a better word - a sponsor, and I am indebted to him for that. When he championed a fledgling ReelViews (was it really ten years ago that I received my first e-mail from him?), it opened doors. A letter of introduction from him cut through red tape in allowing me to become the first on-line film critic accredited at the Toronto Film Festival. And he wrote the introduction to my first book. I know many other film critics who cite him as their inspiration. He is revered by a generation of movie-going bloggers.

One incident I remember well is from the first day we met face-to-face. It was in September 1997 at the Toronto Film Festival. We were headed for a café for a bite to eat. Along the way, Roger was frequently stopped on the sidewalk by people wanting a word, an autograph, or a picture. He honored each request with grace and charm. There was no grumbling or sense that he was being imposed upon.

The Overlooked Film Festival, or "Ebertfest" as it has become known, is a one of a kind event. It's the only film festival dedicated to movies that have been "overlooked" in their general release. Roger handpicks each of the titles, and this year was no different. This is the ninth consecutive year it has been held and in many ways I'm sure it will be the most memorable. Next year, hopefully, Roger will be recovered and able to fulfill his usual duties as host, and it will once again be about the movies. This year, however, it's about his triumphant return.

Although Ebertfest may be only nine years old, it's something that has been with Roger for much longer. I can recall walking along Chestnut Street in Philadelphia with him in 1998 and listening him discuss his intention to start a film festival that specializes in movies that had obtained theatrical release but had been ignored by the public. The wheels were already in motion then to make this a reality; it was an idea that had percolated in his mind for quite some time. One year later, I was at the Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, introducing the film Hamsun and appearing in several on-stage Q&A sessions and panels. (This link goes to an article I wrote covering the festival.)

I have been to Ebertbest twice. The second time was in 2002. My wife - then girlfriend - lived in Chicago so it was convenient to visit her and drive to Champaign-Urbana. In the years between my first appearance and my second, the festival had grown up a little but was fundamentally unchanged. It was getting more press coverage. Dave Poland and I were the only journalists at the first edition. (That's the reason I ended up writing it up for the Sun-Times - there wasn't anyone else who could do it.) By year #4, there were two dozen writers there – many of them writing for Internet sites. This year, the place is crawling with journalists and photographers.

For those who haven't attended and have an opportunity to go, it's worth the trip, at least once. Ebertfest is unlike any other festival. It's intimate and personal. All the movies are held in one location, so there's no need to schlep from theater to theater. Roger and his guests are approachable. Even for veteran festival goers, this is an opportunity for something different. Were it more convenient, I would go every year. Alas, the older I get, the more I despise flying and Illinois is a little too far for a casual car trip.

In closing, on a sadder note, I'd like to mark the passing of Bernard Spigner. The name won't mean much to most of my readers, but those who live in central New Jersey would at least recognize the voice. For five years, from 1999 until 2004, Bernard was "the voice of central New Jersey" on radio station WCTC-AM. He brought me on board in 2001 and I did a half-hour movie show with him every Friday for three years. Over those years, I got to know him quite well and stuck with him as his show moved from the afternoon to the morning to mid-day. Bernard was one of the few guests on my side of the aisle at my wedding (my wife's friends and family dominated the invitation list). I was saddened to learn that Bernard passed away on Monday at the age of 51 of pancreatic cancer. My thoughts go out to his family.

Welcome back, Roger. Farewell, Bernard.