I never knew Roger Ebert although I was at a party with him once, in 1983 at the Telluride Film Festival. He seemed to be a nice, unpretentious guy ready to have a good time with others, bathing in the world he loved the best, the movies. At the time I was busy scurrying around trying to get situated, setting up my living situation for the event. That was the festival where I met the famous Russian director, Andrey Tarkovsky, who was a featured guest that year, and his wife on my way up the mountain. The two of them were picking wildflowers and they gave me a very pleasant greeting as I passed them on the trail. I’d been waiting in a film line to go into the dark when I was irresistibly pulled away by the view of those towering peaks over Telluride under the influence of a beautiful fall day.
Another influence that day, a small cache of psychedelic mushrooms stored in my jacket pocket, were ingested as I climbed. Unfortunately, as the day progressed my disconnect from the world of time and space led me to misread the trail map. I ended up in a cul-de-sac as day turned into night and a stormy sky rolled in to drop the temperature about twenty degrees and cover the moon, making darkness almost absolute as I crawled my way along cliff sides trying to find a way down. In the end I fell off of a ledge into a blind gully, breaking my wrist and a few teeth, and had to climb out the next morning after a shivering night and stumble my way to the trail below. I was rescued by a local emergency crew and taken to the county hospital in nearby Montrose, spending the duration of the festival there. I only made it to the final, then traditional, polka dance that closed the festivities. I danced with my head bandaged and my arm in a sling and gained short lived notoriety as the “guy who fell of the cliff at Telluride.”
The ‘accident’ led to a leave of absence which gave me an opportunity to work full time on the staff of one of the early Denver International Film Festivals. In the years that followed this stoked my passion for the movies and I got to meet people like Wim Wenders, Agnes Varda, Alan Rudolf, Robert Altman and many of the people behind the process that puts those images up on the screen. I began writing about the movies in outraged response to the largely negative critical reception to the movie “Blade Runner”, which I thought at the time was an absolute masterpiece. Like many people in the film audience I watched the early seasons of Siskel and Ebert on public television. I cheered and booed their thumbs up and thumbs down reviews and came to dislike the simplistic mode of praise or put down so many film critics began to emulate.
What came through with Roger Ebert was something more than this. Here was a writer with an obvious love of the medium and a sincere appreciation of all those who contributed to it. When you listened to him you learned something, whether you agreed with him or not. Unlike most critics whose job it is to watch hundreds of movies good and bad, he didn’t get trapped in predictable patterns of likes and dislikes, remaining open to new approaches that expanded the possibilities of storytelling. When you read his reviews you knew that he approached every film fairly, open to whatever the film maker might attempt, without his personal agenda getting in the way.