On my long-ago virgin trip to the Toronto Film Festival, a friend who'd done TIFF many times by then pointed out a gold star with Roger Ebert's name on it. The star was embedded in the sidewalk in splendid isolation outside an unprepossessing Chinese restaurant near my hotel. That puckish marker commemorated a banquet held there in his honor some years earlier. Today, I can't think of another critic for whom such a droll tribute—at once tongue-in-cheek and hand on heart—would be so fitting.
Pauline Kael might have been happier with an arrogant bust of herself in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Andrew Sarris, with a school of cinema studies named for him that spelled "Sarris" wrong. As for David Thomson, he just wants an island where he gets to be the benign version of Dr. Moreau. But Ebert, the greatest popularizer of serious movie love ever, belonged on a thoroughfare.
That's because he should be equally present in all his glory for cinephiles, random pigeons, and people on their indifferent way to the nearby Subway I now know so well. Year after year, seeing Ebert's star on my way home from a day of screenings made me awfully happy.
Like a lot of people unfortunate enough to have never lived in Chicago—where he began as the Sun-Times's bumptious young film reviewer way back in 1967, and what I envy him most is that he knew Bill Mauldin—I first became aware of Ebert as the co-host with Gene Siskel of At The Movies in the '80s. And like a lot of my fellow Village Voice-ey snots, I then thought of the popular television show—thumbs up, thumbs down, and so on—as some sort of death knell for intelligent criticism.
That was an especially dumb and revealing mistake for someone who believes in pop outreach. It took me a long time to grasp that At The Movies—or Siskel And Ebert, as it's more commonly known—was the last, most expressive flowering of that lovely era when movies seemed like they were worth arguing about until the cows came home. To the end of his days, Ebert believed equally and passionately in movies and the value of argument, and his website is proof that he never pulled rank with readers who tangled with him. If they cared enough about film to contest his opinion, then they were kindred spirits, not enemies.
A lot of the time, his taste could be soft. He admired a lot of movies that I roll my eyes at. But then he'd spring a surprise on you, like declaring that Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York was on his list for the Top Ten Movies Ever Made. I love that movie myself, but I don't have Ebert's balls—or the wealth of knowledge to back up the claim. He'd watched and thought hard about more movies than I ever will, and it was never work. It was passion, informed by smarts.
It saddens me that I never got to so much as shake hands with him. But I used to see him all the time at Toronto, well after cancer deprived him of his lower jaw and power of speech. Spotting Ebert indomitably in the queue like the rest of us for the next screening of what might be a masterpiece or might just be more stupid crap—and his eyes said he had no prejudgment—made me feel proud of sharing his profession.
In the last couple of years he attended Toronto, the volunteers sometimes let him go to the head of the line no matter how late he showed up. But I think that was their idea and not his. I have at least one memory of him shaking his head to politely indicate "No" before he gracefully yielded to the inevitable.
His marker outside the Chinese restaurant on Dundas Street in Toronto, by the way, is long gone. The restaurant's management changed, the city's managers stepped in—I don't know. I’m not sure who regulates gold stars on sidewalks. Last September, when I saw that Roger Ebert's Toronto memorial had turned into one more badly repaved hole in the ground, I did think that that they might at least have waited until he'd passed. Then I thought about how warmly and shrewdly he might have written about such a perfect movie scene.