Roger Ebert, A Close Encounter

In memory of Roger Ebert, I will recount an unforgettable experience I had two years ago. I took the following photos, which now are even more memorable.

He was still tweeting just two days before his passing on April 4. Ebert’s presence and influence had been ubiquitous over his four-decade career as a film critic. But it just takes one single encounter to make all the difference to me.

***

Thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, in September 2011 I had the chance to meet the legend. It was only natural for me to think that wherever there were film festivals, there were film critics. But I never would have thought that I would see Roger Ebert in person and to shake hands with him.

It was pure serendipity. While browsing in Indigo Books on Bay Street, I noticed a sign saying Roger Ebert would be in that store signing his memoir Life Itself a few days later. I had long followed his reviews since his “Siskel and Ebert” days, the two-thumbs-up duo. By the way, Ebert’s right thumb-up had been trademarked. Reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (1975). He remained prolific even unto his last days.

Roger Ebert autograph Life Itself

So after seeing the sign I was thrilled to know I would have a chance to see Ebert in person, right there in Toronto. To me, such an encounter was not just about an autograph, or seeing a celebrity up close. It was about seeing a man who after torturous cancer treatments and surgeries for his thyroid, salivary gland and jaw, had lost a part of his face and the ability to talk and eat, and yet still maintained his humor and passions, who continued to press on to new ventures… this was about seeing life itself.

In the late afternoon on September 14, 2011, at the signing area in Indigo Books on Bay Street, people had been lining up for over an hour. I was one of them. At 7 pm, Roger came in walking slowly and with aid, stepped on stage and faced the crowd.

Ebert Signing

Together with his wife Chaz, they gave us a wave. Then he sat down and began signing. Photographs were allowed except for the rule of no posing. I waited my turn to go up to him, shake his hand and get his autograph in my copy of his memoir.

The Q & A session also began.

Roger’s wife Chaz was his voice. Personable and a film lover herself, Chaz shared some of her views of the TIFF selections. As executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies”, she answered some questions without consulting Roger. But for most questions addressed to Roger, he would write in a small coiled notebook, handed it to Chaz to read out his answer.

Roger & Chaz

Here are some of the notes I had taken. Keep in mind this was a casual Q & A session in September, 2011. I’m sure Roger’s view towards 3D and CGI had changed considering his 4-star review of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.

Q. Who influenced you the most?
A. He pointed to his wife standing behind him.

Q. Which decade is your favorite?
A. The 70’s… where you had The Godfather, Raging Bull…

Q. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
A. Buster Keaton, albeit both are great.

Q. 3D?
A. Don’t ask. Story is number one.

Q. CGI (computer-generated imagery)?
A. Movies with CGI are soulless.

Q. All time best?
A. Citizen Kane.

Q. Favorite actor?
A. Robert Mitchum.

Q. Contemporary?
A. Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tilda Swinton

Q. Favorite Canadian directors?
A. Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Guy Maddin (thumb up)

Q. James Cameron?
A. Is James Cameron Canadian? Chaz asked in surprise.

Q. Favorite book?
A. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Canadian! A voice came from the back)

Q. Any pressure from movie producers to write a good review?
A. No, he hasn’t been pressured. He was beyond reproach, Chaz answered.

Q. Any movies you haven’t seen?
A. The Sound of Music

Q. If there’s a movie made about you, who’d you want to play you?
A. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chaz added, Oprah to play me. Diana Ross would be good too.

Q. Advice for potential film critics?
A. Do you want to get paid?

Q. Yes and no. (The questioner covered all bases.)
A. Start blogging. Roger replied. 

Q. How does your life influence the way you review a film?
A. It generates every word.

Definitely more than just an autograph. What an encounter. What a night.

***

Photos of Roger Ebert were taken with just a pocket camera at the event, book autograph page shot with iPhone at home.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books. Click Here to see what others have posted.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

45 thoughts on “Roger Ebert, A Close Encounter”

  1. What a memorable experience! Thanks for sharing it with us. He was an amazing man, I loved his strength and tenacity in sharing his opinions. His relationship with his wife is beautiful.

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    1. Bonnie,

      Yes, I still remember that night how Roger and Chaz related and responded to each other, even though one could not speak at all. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. I wondered if you would write about Roger Ebert — I remember your original post and thinking how fortunate you were to meet this courageous man. I have always appreciated his reviews and tended to agree with most but even if I didn’t, his reasoning was thoughtful and his ideas well stated.

    But what I admired most was the courage he showed in going public after his surgery, never stopping his work, finding a way to have a voice when his own could no longer function in the traditional way. He was a powerful inspiration to all people who face medical and physical challenges. I had heard reports that his cancer had returned, that radiation was the plan only a day or two before. Like so many, I was heartbroken for him, for Chaz. No pain and release — that’s good. The loss, however, is a sad one.

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    1. Jeanie,

      You’re so right about his courage, and in particular, his boldness in revealing himself after the surgery. I’m sure most of us would shy away and likely live as a recluse if we were to lose a part of our face. But, what a man! He was transparent and ever ready to share himself and pursue his passion. You must read his memoir, Life Itself. I know, lots to read. But this one is good just to listen to the book CD’s as you drive.

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  3. What a beautiful memory to share, Arti. How lucky you are to have met him. I love Roger Ebert’s attitude about film – that he saw each movie with an open heart, that he wanted to enjoy it and find the good in it. (Of course we all know how brilliantly scathing he could be when a film disappointed) It’s that bigness of heart and mind that kept him working and bravely meeting life head on. A big life, indeed.

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    1. Sim,

      It was pure stumbling upon kind of situation. If I hadn’t seen that sign at Indigo, I wouldn’t have known, even though I’d been to see some Festival films. Yes, I think that’s the legacy he’d left us with, a generosity of spirit … mind you, I find his reviews very generous and ‘tolerant’. One consolation is… he had left us with lots of writing so we can continue to treasure his thoughts.

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  4. Mr. Roger Ebert, what a legend. Yes, I remember you met him in Toronto, thank you for posting these pricelesspics along with the Q & A. I am amazed he never saw Sound of Music. Rest in peace Roger, you’re missed.

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    1. Molly Mavis,

      Priceless indeed because they were taken by me personally, even though you can find numerous photos online. Now, I need to go through his writing again just to savour them once more. Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects and leaving your comment.

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  5. I thought about you and your experience at once when I heard that Roger Ebert had died. Because I don’t follow film as you do, I hadn’t really followed his career and reviews, and your original post was quite a shock to me.

    He was a marvelous human being, and quite a wonderful critic. When I re-read the question and answer session above, I was surprised by his remark about CGI. I may not even have known what that was when I first read your piece. I thought, for example, about Beasts of the Southern Wild and wondered, “How could he not like the CGI used there?” Then, I did some research and found out more about the making of the film. The beasts actually were… I guess I shouldn’t spoil it, particularly because I need to find a second source to confirm what I think I learned!

    Anyway, may Mr. Ebert rest in peace – I loved his parting shot. “See you at the movies.”

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    1. Linda,

      I was gong to reiterate with the Q & A that it took place in 2011. Why, that was before 3D and CGI can be used to achieve soulfulness. I’m thinking of Life of Pi (you must see this Linda, in 3D on big screen if possible), and yes, Beasts too. But you know, I’ve learned so much from Roger Ebert’s reviews, his big heart and humanity. Just heard from CBC radio an interview of Werner Herzog, who had dedicated his film Encounters at the End of the World (2007 doc. on Antarctica) to Roger Ebert. Ebert had been Herzog’s fan and advocate. He had a keen eye to ‘pick out’ talents and appreciate the ethereal. So much to say about his writing style, one that teaches me to use ordinary language to speak to the heart.

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      1. I had read that comment regarding 3D as not so much him saying 3D is no good but as saying the point is not the technology but the quality of the story. (Then again, I suppose you could argue that about CGI too and his answer to that was rather categorical wasn’t it!)

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  6. How fortunate you were to have the opportunity to meet him and his wife, what a remarkable couple. I was not familiar with his work, but what I am reading of him now, makes me wish to know more. A wonderful tribute, thank you for sharing your personal experience.

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    1. Claire,

      Yes, I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have been able to meet the legend, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Do read some of his writing. Even though Roger will no longer write new reviews, there are many, many published works of his that I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading. Thanks for stopping by the pond. 😉

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  7. What a great story! I agree, he was inspirational for many reasons — his courage, his writing, his heart — how fortunate you were to meet him. Thanks for sharing this photos this week.

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    1. Melwyk,

      Glad you stopped by Ripple Effects. I’m always glad to meet another fellow Canuck blogger. I don’t go to TO often, only once in a few years, and usually during the TIFF. So, that was really an amazing encounter for me.

      Like

  8. What a great memory to have. I didn’t know much of him, but he sounds wonderful. I’m surprised that he hadn’t seen The Sound of Music! Makes me feel better about only seeing it a few years ago- I thought everyone had seen it but me. It’s great finding events like that- especially when you can actually go!

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    1. Louise,

      It’s pure serendipity, and I don’t go to Toronto that often either. Yes, the photos are going to be even more memorable now… so are my memories. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Like

  9. Lovely story Arti – I knew of course who he was and saw him on TV when we lived in North America but of course he’s not the main name in movie reviewing for us down under. Still sad to see such an icon go though.

    BTW I concur with him on A fine balance. It’s one of my favourite novels too.

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    1. WG,

      I’m a bit surprised to hear his ‘absence’ down under. You can say he was the ‘definitive’ voice of movie criticism in N. America. Had written over a dozen books on movies, so that’s our consolation in a way, a treasury of his reviews and essays. I’m going to take The Great Movies down my shelf and really read it now. And you know what, I also have A Fine Balance for many years already, still in one of my TBR boxes. Will get to that sooner now. 😉

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  10. Thanks for sharing such a terrific memory Arti! And with photos! I had no idea that Ebert had never seen The Sound of Music. For a film critic and especially one of his stature, I would have thought that would have been mandatory. Do you know why? I’ve never seen it, either, but so what i.e., who the hell am I? Very lovely tribute to a remarkable movie and life-loving guy whose insights were such a gift. I’m not a spiritual person, but if there is such a thing as an afterlife I hope he’s with Gene and talking his head off. And Spot the Wonderdog is with them, too.

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    1. lameadventures,

      I hope his skipping that one doesn’t speak to the movie’s quality… for I’ve read some were critical about its winning the Best Picture Oscar. Anyway, I’m digging out the book I have, Roger Ebert the Great Movies, to see which ones I’ve missed and try to catch up, not just to watch the film, but appreciate why Roger thought it was great. My consolation is that he had left us with numerous writing and reviews from which I can still learn every day.

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    1. Leslie,

      That’s why I was ecstatic to see him in person in Toronto… a city far from where I live. I only visit TO every few years, and just for a few days each time.

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  11. I remember when you got to meet Ebert, what a wonderful experience. He seems like he was a good person and he touched the lives of many. He and his thumb will be greatly missed.

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    1. Stefanie,

      And he was such a good writer. His reviews were all simply written yet deeply perceptive. His last review is exemplary. Do take a look… it’s Terrence Malick’s (The Tree of Life, 2011) newest To The Wonder. I especially appreciate the last three paragraphs, poignantly his last words to the movie-watching public.

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  12. I remember reading an extended article about his cancer and how his life changed afterwards, the book he was writing on cooking though he couldn’t eat as he used to, and of his love for his wife. He was refreshingly open as though inviting the world into his home was no big deal.

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  13. I remember reading this post when you got to meet him – how wonderful to have that memory now forever. When I saw he’d died, I wondered if you’d pay tribute to him – and of course you have! Beautifully, as ever.

    Like

  14. Oh dear – WordPress ate my comment because I didn’t remember my password that was memorized last week. Ah well.
    This was definitely a memorable event. Good sharing.

    Like

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