I am sad. I had a few privileged moments in Chicago, with Roger Ebert during the mid to late 80s. As a film fan, I had grown fascinated with – and somewhat knowledgeable of – Japanese films.
When Kirosawa’s “Ran,” the retelling of King Lear as an almost 3-hour-long medieval wide-screen epic appeared in a Chicago art house, I was there. At the intermission, I went to the popcorn line. Moments later, I heard Ebert’s unmistakeable midwestern voice, standing directly behind me, asking the opinions of other popcorn buyers about the film we were half-way through.
Eventually he asked me. I gave my opinion (I love that film and am in awe of it). He continued to press for details. I compared it to other Japanese film. I said it was their Gone With The Wind. He liked that.
The line moved slowly and he asked question after question. Eventually he asked, “Aside from Ran, what is your favorite Japanese film.”
I said, “Hara Kiri” and as he prodded, I explained why. The details I recited about its structure, pacing, cinematography and characters increased his curiosity.
“How many time have you seen it?”
“Oh, probably 8 times”
“What are you doing next Tuesday night? I want you to talk to my class.”
He described the course he taught every semester, as a University of Chicago course, at a private theater in an unmarked office building on Chicago’s Near North Side. “Each semester I explore a genre. I start with a 15 to 30 minute description of a film, then show that film, followed by an open, free-for-all discussion that sometimes lasts until Midnight. Then some of us go to the hot dog diner on Ohio Street and continue there until we are talked out.”
“The new semester starts next Tuesday evening at 6pm and the subject is Japanese movies. The first film on the schedule is Hari Kiri. I have not seen it. I want you to do the introduction. Then join the post show discussion.”
Of course I did. At the end of that first class he invited me to become a non-registered, non-credit, non-paying “auditor” of his class.
Until then, I only knew him as the guy on TV. I did not always share his opinions, but they always deserved attention and respect.
The Roger Ebert I encountered that semester was one of the most intelligent and discerning men I have ever known. At the end of the “Japanese semester” he invited me to the next semester. The subject this time was his own favorite genre, Film Noir.
He treated the students as his intellectual equals, although none of us were. He entertained any opinion as long as you had an interesting rationale. He was generous with support while you stood your ground and worked through your thoughts. But if you could not support your opinion with something more challenging than “I liked it.” you were ignored.
The only thing that caused him to be bluntly dismissive were students who distracted the class with the noise of unwrapping a sandwich or a candy bar. He had exquisitely fine hearing. Offenders got one fierce warning. If heard a second time, he said nothing. But he would stop, stare and extend his arm, wordlessly pointing to the exit until the offender slunk out of the room.
The man was that rare genius who, for all of his opinions and erudition, seemed never to be upset if someone did not agree with him. He only expected you to argue intelligently, based on knowledge and reason.
I stopped coming after the end of that second semester only because I was moving out of the country to take a job as a journalist.
He was brilliant on Shakespeare, Roman and Greek literature. He loved ideas and people who discussed them.
Ave atque vale