The film world was busy this week mourning the loss of two “mountains”—documentary filmmaker Les Blank and film critic Roger Ebert. They will both be remembered for highlighting work about women, blacks, Cajuns, “crackers,” Mexicans, Yugoslavs—subjects and filmmakers who are too often ignored and forgotten by mainstream media. Both men have inspired me in my own filmmaking and teaching.
In case you’ve been under a cultural rock, Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times, Pulitzer prize-winning film critic who wrote, perhaps, some of the best-known reviews (in the world), and who carried on after his PBS partner, Gene Siskel, passed away, ending the longest-running film criticism partnership in history. (Watch the 1978 premiere episode of Sneak Previews). With the help of his wife, Chaz, Ebert fiercely battled cancer during the last decade of his life, losing his jaw and ability to speak but refusing to stop working, writing reviews in his final days.
In Chicago on Monday, Gov. Quinn and Mayor Emanuel both attended Ebert’s memorial. Jonathan Jackson (Rev. Jesse’s son) reported that he had just spoken with Spike Lee who asked Jackson to read aloud during proceedings: “Roger Ebert was a champion of my work and other black filmmakers.” Even Passport, the Foreign Policy blog, commented on the importance of Ebert for popularizing foreign films in the Hollywood-dominated U.S.A. Many independent directors were helped with distributing their work because Ebert graced them with some national visibility after watching their DVD.
I haven’t even started to describe Blank’s relationship to Werner Herzog, or his film “Burden of Dreams,” which defined Herzog’s career as much as Blank’s. Ebert described this film as “one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie.” Blank—like Ebert—was noted for his humility, his willingness to engage with young filmmakers, the credit he gave to his female collaborators, and his great sense of humor. Blank stayed at my house a few years ago in Chicago for visits to different universities. Local film faculty still remember Blank (at age 75) rolling around his heavy suitcase full of t-shirts and DVDs that he self-distributed to libraries. My partner and I took him around the city and watched as he pulled in several thousand dollars from sales, but—since he was in great shape--always insisted on carrying the suitcase himself.