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Farewell to a generous colleague and friend

MoviesFilm FestivalsThe New York TimesInterior PolicyPersonal Weapon Control

Roger Ebert died Thursday, April 4, 2013. A lousy day. I rue it. But I will always remember Roger’s kindness and his eloquence. I’m not alone there.

The loss is instantaneous, the absence crushing. Chicago’s own journalist, film critic, media personality and civic conscience will no longer explain, with the sort of stylistic ease only a truly gifted writer can manage, what he saw in the last movie he saw. Or why gun control mattered to him. Or climate change. Or why life itself, which is what he called his autobiography, is such precious stuff.

He saw, and felt, and described the movies more effectively, more cinematically, and more warmly than just about anyone writing about anything. Even his pans had a warmth to them. Even when you disagreed with Roger you found yourself imagining the movie he saw, and loved (or hated) more than you did.

I came late to film criticism in Chicago, after writing about the theater. Roger loved the theater. His was a theatrical personality: a raconteur, a spinner of dinner-table stories, a man who was not shy about his accomplishments. But he made room in that theatrical, improbable, outsized life for others.

Right away Roger presented himself as a colleague, then a champion, later a friend. He had nothing to gain by being any of those things. But the love, admiration and support he got from so many, in Chicago and around the world, amounted to an energy source, sent back out into the world, into his friendships, into his writing.

He took me aside one day at the 2006 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the biggest and most influential of its kind. Roger was the king of Cannes. He’d been going for decades, learning the navigation of it, the pacing, the proper balance of early morning screenings and late-night screenings and everything in between.

We were on the beach for a press event for the new Pedro Almodovar picture. He saw the look of panic and fatigue in the eyes of his fellow Chicago film critic, the new guy. The first time you go to Cannes, it’s like getting run over by the same truck 12 times. You don’t know what hit you, or why it’s backing up to hit you again.

“C’mere,” he said, smiling. We sat under a tent. He told me, patiently, who I needed to contact to arrange an interview. He told me I didn’t need to cut the 10 a.m. event short to catch the 11 a.m. press screening at the Debussy; it was going to repeat later that evening. He told me everything I didn’t yet know, and it would’ve taken me the rest of the festival to learn the hard way. He told me who was full of it, and who was a mensch. And where to get a good quick sandwich and still make the 7:30 screening. And so on.

He helped me.

When he got sick and left “At the Movies” as its co-host, he paved the way for me to enter the ring with his co-host, Richard Roeper. For a while a lot of us came and went on the show. For its final season, A.O. Scott of The New York Times and I got the call. Roger was beyond gracious.

He always said: On TV, make time for what must be said about that film, that actor, that argument. Be yourself, not someone else. Be the truest version of yourself on TV that TV can accommodate.

He believed in good will, and, at the keyboard as well as away from it, the value of a kind word. He cherished serious criticism, and classics that will never die, and schlock that won’t make it beyond next month but might be fun anyway. He lived a great, whole-hearted life, in the city he loved, married to the woman he loved, writing about everything he loved.

Writing about the movies means you get to write about life itself. Roger embraced that challenge, and after he got sick he wrote so well about so much more than the movies, he became a hero. While we may not have agreed on the merits of “Babel” or “Crash,” there was a time, once, at a screening, when he and I got going on the subject of how much we adored “His Girl Friday,” that great Chicago newspaper movie. And then the publicist finally said, “Uh, guys. We should probably start the film.”

Roger was a great Chicago newspaper movie unto himself. I miss him already.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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