There I was, at the President's House of the University of Illinois, enjoying a work-related function. Odd though it may sound, it was a familiar environment. I'd been there before, several times, for the opening night gala for Ebertfest, Roger Ebert's annual film festival held in his hometown of Urbana-Champaign. Then I got a text from my partner that read "Ebert has died."
The surroundings remained familiar, but surreal. A few moments prior I'd been thinking how, in just a couple of weeks, I'd be back at the house again celebrating a new edition of Roger Ebert's Film Festival. It would be fun! Yes, Ebert had recently announced that his cancer had returned, but he'd sounded very future-forward in his outlook, and I sort of hoped that perhaps he'd be able to attend his wonderful, glorious event.
And now he's gone.
It is difficult to put into words the melancholy I feel. One can only imagine what his family and friends are going through during this time. While it's true that Ebert lived to 70 (almost 71) years of age, and that it's a nice age to get to if you can, it doesn't really make his loss any easier to take. He was so active, so present, despite his multitude of health problems in recent years.
A prolific man, Roger Ebert managed to fit a lot into his 70 year of life. There was his four-decade-long career as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, his nearly-as-long stint on the air reviewing movies with the late Gene Siskel and others, his frequent tweets, blog posts, plethora of books (mostly about film, but also about rice cookers) and, of course, his annual film festival.
The 15th Annual Ebertfest is scheduled for April 17-21 at the newly-restored Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. Having begun in 1999, I did not attend the first two years, having no one to go with. Beginning in 2001, Ashley & I have gone to each festival, having seen most of the films. Some years have been better than others, but we've cherished each and every one. They've served as a gateway to wonderful new film experiences, and a shared love of cinema with fellow festival-goers.
Words really are inadequate to convey the gifts that Ebert provided over the years to his readers, his viewers and his festival attendees. An enrichment of the appreciation of cinema is a good way to start, but barely scratches the surface. Indeed, I feel as though we've lost a kindred spirit in film. From here on out, movie-going just won't be the same.
This evening, I took Ashley to the University of Illinois campus, to the building where I work so he could see my new workspace. As we were leaving, I heard music, and turned to see some students inside the university YMCA, having a party. I got wistful, realizing that, here, on the same campus where young Roger Ebert went to college, the young people of today were celebrating life in the shadow of his death.
This is the way things work, though, isn't it? The living enjoy being alive while others end their journey here. So it goes. Ebert understood this. He would want us to enjoy his film festival later this month. In fact, it may be the best requiem a film critic could ever ask for.