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Roger Ebert, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 4, 2013

Thursday afternoon I was in Cleveland, talking to a director and producer about their new film, "The Kings of Summer," which was the opening feature of the Cleveland International Film Festival and will be in local theaters in June. On the way back to Akron, my editor texted me that Roger Ebert had died. Strange to go from thinking and talking about movies to thinking about someone who had spent much of his life watching and reviewing movies.

When I was back in the office, I wrote about Ebert, not only about his importance as a film critic but about the way he kept looking ahead even when cancer was tearing apart  his body. I made note of that in a post yesterday about Ebert's latest announcement of his health and his plans for the future. The column I wrote is here.

Not in the piece, but something I have been thinking about the last few hours (including while in a dentist's chair), is an interview I did about a year ago with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who was co-host of "Ebert Presents At the Movies" with Christy Lemire. That show was a revival of the classic "At the Movies" for a new audience, with Ebert a contributor. Unfortunately, it could not sustain itself financially, to the dismay of many movie lovers; in his last message to readers, Ebert said he was planning a Kickstarter campaign to fund a return of the show.

But Vishnevetsky, a film scholar whose taste doubtless seemed esoteric to some viewers, was revealing about the magic of Ebert (and Siskel, especially) when he talked about doing "At the Movies":

"It’s a really great way to talk about film because it forces you to find the most basic underlying thing. It kind of forces you to change your priorities. To me, it was very difficult but I loved it because you kind of had to work in absolutes, which I hadn’t had to do (in his written work)."

To be sure, Ebert on TV dealt in absolutes -- thumbs up, dogs of the week. He often did in print as well. But that was not all he did. He, and especially his debates with Siskel, said there were many ways to look at a movie, many ways to decide what is good and bad, many cases where absolute judgment was not possible. (His review of "Top Gun," which I quoted in my column, was especially dismayed that a movie could be so good in some places and so awful in others.)

In my column, I did make note of Red Smith, the sports columnist who wrote late in life of having to cut back his workload from four columns to three. He died five days later. But, if I had had the entire column in front of me, I would have included a story Smith told -- one that reminds me how fiercely prolific Ebert was to the end, how there was always something more to say, another film or person that had gotten him thinking.

From Smith:

First time I ever encountered John S. Knight, the publisher, .... he said, "Nobody can write six good columns a week. Why don't you write three? Want me to fix it up?"

"Look, Mr. Knight," I said. "Suppose I wrote three stinkers, I wouldn't have the rest of the week to recover." One of the beauties of this job is that there's always tomorrow. Tomorrow things will be better.

I don't think Ebert believed tomorrow would be better, at least not in recent years. But he never stopped looking toward tomorrow -- and the chance it might bring to think and write one more time.

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