“I lived a world of words long before I knew it,” said acclaimed Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.
I was going to write a mostly angsty #FreeWriteFriday about the power of words such as bitch and tease that have slighted me (and many others), but Ebert’s diction power was all I could think about today.
Today, sitting in squishy, slightly squeaky theater chair in the Lake Street Screening Room on the 16th floor of 70 E. Lake, I entered an atmosphere that mixed memorial with networking as women spoke of their red carpet run-ins and exchanged cards, and with a film critic powwow that I was most definitely not invited to. I was there to see a screening of “Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert for a section dedicated to him in the Sun-Times that I am helping with as part of my internship.
Being the modern journalist-in-training that I am, I sent off a quick tweet before the movie started:
Getting pumped to see this screening of the @EbertMovie. Documentaries, yo.
— Veronica DeStefano (@Veroniconda_18) June 20, 2014
My tweet ended up seeming quite juvenile compared to the crop of critics I was rubbing headrests with. Some of their tweets got retweeted by the “Life Itself” account and mentioned the air of melancholy that accompanied seeing this great film and some explained sentimental gestures:
Headed to #LifeItself screening with roses for Roger’s old seat… & plenty of tissues.
— Erika Olson (@erikaolson) June 20, 2014
I felt an air of responsibility weigh down on my neck in the “Chicago Sun-Times” embossed in white ink around my press badge lanyard. There I was, little ole intern me, representing Ebert’s home base among people that probably were learning from his work when I was still reading about how Kirsten, the American Girl Doll, survived the tough prairie winters.
The slight panic-induced claustrophobia inching in on me was relinquished when Ebert said at the beginning of the documentary, “The movies are a machine that generates empathy.”
Empathy. Togetherness. Words that emitted warmth, the warmth and shared energy that I was seemingly immersed in. All of us laughed and stifled sobs (not as hard for me as for others) whether they were a veteran or rookie.
Ebert had been using his words to change the landscape of film reviews and the film industry in general. He was doing the pre-internet equivalent of live-posts with his constant writing of reviews and hosting of his special segment of the “Sneak Previews” show during Cannes. When he had no voice due to the removal of his jaw as part of his battle against cancer, he had words. And even some of his final interview responses to Steve James were extremely poignant just because of the desperation of the text whimpering, “I can’t… I’m fading.”
But, he is far from faded. Even me, a newbie to Ebert’s extensive history, sensed a palpable presence of him that will live on in Steve James’ moving documentary, roses placed in back aisle seats and Pulitzer-prize winning words published under the Chicago Sun-Times masthead and on his blog up until the day he died.