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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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