Jennie Livingston, director, "Paris is Burning"
Siskel and Ebert gave my film "Paris is Burning" two thumbs up, which is was so excellent and surreal (my first film! a nonfiction film! a queer film!) I could barely process it. But it was, hands-down, the main thing people PR people wanted to use to legitimize the film. (In this day and age, I'd post it on social media and brag, but back in 1991, you demurely let the PR people handle which facts were helpful.)
I was on a press tour with Willi Ninja, a voguer and one of the main people in "Paris is Burning" and we went on Ebert's show in Chicago. I remember that Ebert was kind of grumpy towards me (I'm not sure why - he clearly liked the film enough to stick his thumb up) which was disappointing, but solicitous towards Willi, which was lovely, since a few of the interviews we did involved people treating me like the filmmaker and Willi like "the subject." (Perhaps Mr. Ebert was our moment of reverse karma!)
The other memory I have is of Mr. Ebert receiving an award at the Gothams awards when I was on a jury -- maybe six years ago? His wife read his statement. He was out there, wearing a neck brace, and I remember thinking, "How many people with a visible illness would just stay home to preserve an image?" (My mother, who died back in 1996 after 10 years of cancer, kept her illness very private, especially in the professional sphere.) And he was out there, among us, collecting his due. It made a huge impression.
I think sometimes people get sick and do no inner work, and sometimes people get sick and do lots of inner work but keep it private. He got sick and was out there with his experiences. This is something he wrote that keeps being shared, on social media and in the obits: "We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." How funny that this revelation, really a spiritual truth you'll hear everywhere, from the rabbis to the Dalai Lama to Jesus to the smart old lady on the block, should come from a critic. From someone whose job it is to separate the bad, the mediocre, and the good, and keep filmmakers and audiences honest. I appreciate that he chose to speak not just about the fabricated worlds of movies, but also about his own experiences of love.
Next: "I gave him a ticket to our premiere, never imagining he would actually attend."