Death has a way of washing away sins and transforming people into paper saints. But the joyous memorial for Roger Ebert at the Chicago Theatre last Thursday night was a celebration of an unabashed sinner, a man of rapacious appetites and a lust for life that carried him through years of intense trauma.
The nearly three-hour memorial was characterized by a bracingly honest vulgarity. It felt more like a religious service than Ebert’s funeral in an actual Catholic church Monday morning. But this was Roger Ebert’s version of church, so there were several radiant black choirs; nudity, profanity, and drug use in the film clips; prickly outtakes of Ebert and Gene Siskel’s hilarious sparring; ample talk about Ebert’s love of enormous breasts; and a rambling, off-color, rape-joke-heavy monologue from Methuselah-like comedian Dick Gregory.
This was no dour dirge: As Ebert’s wife, Chaz, quipped in her opening comments, referencing an iconic line from Ebert’s screenplay from Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, it was a happening, one last big show from a bona fide American icon with a presence so large, he could hold entire cultural movements in his passionate embrace: independent film, documentary film, black film, the civil-rights movement, disabled rights, and more.
The memorial kicked into high gear with an ecstatic performance of Stevie Wonder’s “As” from the Soul Children Of Chicago. It established that this wouldn’t be a conventional memorial, so much as a profoundly emotional celebration. This was to be a memorial as big and messy as—to quote the title of Ebert’s 2011 memoir—life itself. Throughout the evening, clips chronicled all the seasons of Ebert’s life, but the most vivid, cinematic imagery came from speakers who brought Ebert and Siskel’s famously combative relationship to life. Siskel’s widow, Marlene, didn’t underplay the conflict between her husband and Ebert. This was no whitewashed version of a legendary partnership, but rather an honest exploration of the dynamic between two men whose relationship was a mix of competition, resentment, love, dependence, ego, and mutual respect.
The memorial was also refreshingly full of reminders of Ebert’s humanity. Speaker after speaker mentioned things folks aren’t supposed to say in polite company, about Ebert’s enthusiasm for voluptuous co-eds and off-color jokes, and lost nights at bars where Ebert rubbed shoulders with other Chicago legends, like Studs Terkel and Mike Royko. It was a memorial broad enough to include John Cusack reading a heartfelt letter from President Obama and a randy anecdote about Ebert hurling ice cubes at a drinking buddy who commented on the enormous breasts of one of the students Ebert taught and invited to drink with him after class.
Speakers like Daughters Of The Dust director Julie Dash relayed how empowering it felt when Ebert turned the volcanic force of his enthusiasm in their direction, how an email, a review, or even just a smile or a thumbs-up could make them feel like they mattered, as did their films, their struggles, and their lives. As the speakers attested, it didn’t matter whether you were a young John Cusack, a publicist branching out into personal documentary for the first time, or the college-aged daughter of Hugh Hefner: Ebert’s validation meant everything. It was the closest thing to an official benediction in an increasingly niche-oriented culture.
It became clear we’re unlikely to see the likes of Roger Ebert again, both because men of his quality are rare and because the cultural forces that shaped him have shifted. The days of the professional newspaper writer may not outlive Ebert by long. The pop-culture universe is infinitely more fractured than it was when Ebert and his thumb became synonymous with film criticism. When we mourn figures like him, we are in part mourning the death of a cultural consensus, of figures so influential that their lives and deaths, affect everyone.
As Siskel & Ebert creator and producer Thea Flaum marveled, it’s borderline-miraculous that Ebert became rich and world-famous talking smartly and substantively about movies on PBS with a professional colleague. That is a miracle that probably won’t ever recur, as evidenced by the failure of seemingly every non-Ebert-related film-review show—and a few Ebert was connected to as well. Everyone knew Roger Ebert. That is not true of any other living film critic, and may never be true of a film critic again.
It seems like a self-contradiction that Ebert is a singular phenomenon in part because he single-handedly did so much to democratize and popularize film criticism. More than anyone else, Ebert embodied the idea that film culture, criticism, and appreciation (like film itself) belonged to everyone and wasn’t the exclusive, highbrow realm of Cahiers Du Cinéma and The New Yorker.
Ebert maintained the boundless, infectious enthusiasm of a passionate amateur even after he had attained mastery in his professional life and writing. He was the first film critic to receive journalism’s most prestigious award, the Pulitzer. But his life and career suggested that the only true qualifications a film critic needs is passionate engagement with the art form and a gift for elucidating thoughts about that art form eloquently.
In that respect, Ebert’s true heirs are as much the passionate amateurs who share their thoughts on movies in tiny blogs and upstart websites as much as the weary, defeated band of brothers just barely making a living as film critics these days. In spite of his lofty perch and his journalistic and commercial credentials, Ebert didn’t deliver judgments from on high. He functioned as a galvanizing central figure whose reviews, essays, and blog entries often began a cultural conversation he continued to follow wherever it led, even when his declining health should have diminished his energy and curiosity about the world. Instead, it seemed to do the opposite: The sicker he got, the greater his hunger for life and humanity became.
In one of the clips of the evening, Ebert stated forcefully, “For me, a movie is like a machine that generates empathy.” A true humanist in the all-American mold of Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, Ebert maintained a political and personal philosophy centering on excessive kindness, and finding a way of experiencing and spreading joy whenever possible. Just as empathy was a cornerstone of Ebert’s life and writing, it was a recurring theme of the evening. He was a fierce liberal, and cinema’s gift for engendering empathy had an important political and moral component for him as well. It allowed audiences to experience the lives and issues of suffering souls across any racial, class, or gender lines, and in the process understand more about the world around them. Ebert understood that a documentary like Hoop Dreams—whose co-director, Steve James, filmed the memorial for his upcoming adaptation of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself—could get audiences to empathize with the struggles of poor black kids on the south side of Chicago like nothing else could.
Ebert’s life was full of tragic, malign coincidence. A man whose boisterous laugh and strong, sure voice once rang across the cultural landscape was silenced by cancer. A friendly face everyone knew was disfigured by a number of nearly fatal surgeries. A man of voluminous, Falstaffian appetites was unable to eat. The partner with whom he was synonymous died young. Yet the life that unfolded over the course of the evening in film clips, anecdotes, and jokes was a triumph. It felt like Ebert was ascending to another realm, not exiting a world of pain and misery.
Talent, hard work, ethics, and integrity made Ebert a great writer. Television made him rich and famous, but adversity made him a philosopher and an inspiration. Experiencing the worst life has to offer brought out the best in him. Robbed of his physical voice, he found new ways to carry on the conversation and bring the whole world into it. The Internet opened up new vehicles for empathy. Through Twitter, Ebert could peer into the thoughts and lives of people he might have everything or nothing in common with. On his blog, he had spirited conversations with commenters not because they were famous or he was professionally obligated to, but because they wanted to talk about movies, and that was just about all anyone needed to enter into a great, meaningful conversation with him.
Though he was a great storyteller, he was an even better conversationalist. That’s what the memorial felt like: one long conversation with many voices working together in unison to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The speakers were talking to the assembled mourners and to himself. It was as if for one last historic night, he was once again the king of O’Rourke’s, the legendary downtown Chicago bar where he held court during his much-mythologized drinking days. He was once again sharing his wisdom with the world via the words that will be his enduring legacy.
Ebert’s love affair with Chaz figured as prominently in the night’s narrative as his love affair with films. It’s a testament to the transformative power of their bond that a man who loved movies more than just about anyone in the world found in Chaz (and her family) something that gave him even greater joy and satisfaction. An epic life requires an epic romance, and Ebert clearly found that. Chaz spoke last and haltingly, clearly overcome with emotion at times, just as she was during Ebert’s funeral. But Chaz’s words were passionate and powerful; her extended silences even more so.
Ebert’s memorial was appropriately cinematic in scope and grandeur. It felt like a powerhouse scene in a great movie, which is what it may become in Steve James’ hands. For close to three hours, the crowd at the Chicago Theatre was blessed to experience a little of Ebert’s mind, to see the world through his unblinking, compassionate eyes. From that vantage point, the world still seemed like a beautiful, inspiring place, in spite of all the pain and struggles, from alcoholism to cancer to silence and disfigurement to his partner’s death to the seemingly imminent demise of the industry he personified.
While Ebert didn’t have children, his ideas will live on in the memory of everyone who loved him as a bastion of integrity in a media world that is increasingly for sale to the highest bidder. It is fitting that Ebert will endure both through his voluminous body of work and as the subject of a film he would have eagerly anticipated even if it weren’t about him. (He was, after all, a staunch champion of James’ work.) It is poetically fitting that when Life Itself reaches theaters, Ebert will attain true immortality in a medium he loved. Because cinema exists forever in the present tense, Roger Ebert will never truly be gone, and we’ll be able to resume our ongoing conversation with our old friend every time we read his words or watch the movie about a life that was no less wonderful for having included such pain and suffering.