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  rogerebertRoger Ebert, 1942 – 2013

I can’t find it in the digital chaos beneath my fingers, but somewhere is a copy of what was my first review, of my first film, Portrait, edited about this time in 1963, after hitch-hiking from Italy to London.  Last year the Eyefilm archive in Amsterdam made an archival print of it (which I haven’t seen, though thanks to the internet the woman who was the subject of the film, Matilde, who was then a 12 year old child, connected with me for the first time in 35 or more years).  The review was in the Chicago Sun-Times, I imagine in 1967, shortly after I’d been released from prison, from a screening of it along with some other Chicago “underground” films at the Aardvark Theater on the near-north side.  It was written by a young, newly-hired critic, Roger Ebert.  Of course neither of us knew then what life’s trajectory would bring to us.  Now we know what Roger’s life would be; last word is still out on my own.

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Aardvark Cinema, Wells St., Chicago

Roger, as everyone knows, went on to become a rather famous film critic, with a nationally syndicated television show, Siskel & Ebert,  broadcast for some decades. He also wrote books.  Along with his partner, Gene Siskel, he was a kind of power in the film business – able with a thumb up or down to significantly shift the box office figures for some films.  While I have never followed such things, I understand that Ebert tended to stick his thumb on the scales in support of smaller, so-called “independent” work when they came into sight.  He certainly did for me.  Back in 1990, when I’d finished All the Vermeers in New York, operating without a press agent and the other accoutrements of the biz (and an inept partner), I wrote Roger personally, reminding him of that first review and asking him to take a look at the film, and possibly review it on the Siskel & Ebert show.  He did, and it was reviewed, garnering 2 thumbs up.  I am sure the marginal BO it did was largely owing to that. It ran 6 months in Chicago.  [In Los Angeles it got 7 favorable reviews and opened on the day of the Watts riots, with closed cinema’s the following week.  It never ran there – a nasty little twist of fate.]   I am certain that most people who meet me and tell me I am “famous” heard of me through Roger.

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Sometime later, he also reviewed, though not on television, my film Frameup.  To my knowledge that’s all he ever saw of mine.  I had a few very brief exchanges with him in the last decade, things not important, though if memory serves me correctly (?) not so long ago I wrote him a note saying I admired his courage in the face of his situation in life.  And, quite recently, Tweeting, he expressed support for Mark Rappaport and my efforts on Mark’s behalf.  To say, he wasn’t by any measure a friend, or even an acquaintance, but only that our lives distantly crossed paths, from long ago.

From that perspective I just wish to note that as his condition narrowed his physical means, it seemed to open his soul.  Unable to speak, he spoke, in a sense, even more, using his blog and Twitter.  And his subject broadened from mere film to life itself.  Seriously maimed by his cancer he did not draw behind a curtain, but stepped forward, and, offering an example for others, showed himself publicly – in no way as “victim” or unfairly chosen in life’s lottery, but as someone who learned from the adversities which visited him.   And in some very real sense he was transformed from being just a film critic, however “important,” into a kind of performance artist.  His life became his art.  And he was very effective at this, however conscious or unconscious a decision it was.

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As a filmmaker, while it is what I do, I honestly don’t think films, or their making, and all the things which surround this, is very important.  It is just another thing humans do these days.  It is as important as what your plumber does, or what an air traffic controller does, or what the barista does, or what anyone else does – no less, no more.  And in my view it is the same for a critic – what they do is not important, certainly no more so than what they critique.  So it is interesting that what life inflicted on Roger – the terrible and tragic medical state which was imposed on him – coerced him into becoming something far more than a critic, into becoming what he admired and wished to be, into being an artist.  In this, he became our fame-besotted time’s hunger artist.

In his last posting, several days before his death, with a certain wit, while enumerating all the things he planned to do, he signaled his complete awareness of his circumstance with his title, A Leave of Presence.  Mr Ebert is no longer present.  I am a firm atheist, and Roger has gone the same place we all go – to oblivion, the synaptic magic which energizes us in life, deleted.  Stepping, as he did, publicly, articulately, and in a manner passionately, towards his own erasure, was his greatest act as a human and artist.  We should be thankful for the example.

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  1. […] Roger and me by Jon Jost (Roger Ebert reviewed his film) […]

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