Eulogies for Roger Ebert were still dotting the media last Sunday when I learned of the death of another film friend and inspiration, documentary director Les Blank. Like Ebert, this visionary chronicler of our times -through our music, food and cultural quirks - had finally lost his battle with cancer.
They were both in their 70s. We had all been much younger men when our career paths began crossing, more than 30 years ago. It's a little presumptuous to call them friends, but we did go way back together, and the connections followed me to Maui.
When Ebert died last Thursday, it was hard to label his career. Movies? Television? Newspapers? New media? He redrew the fundamental relationships between them all, creating new synapses, new genres in the process.
In the course of reviewing movies, then talking about them on TV, then blogging, his life itself became a movie. His courage and wit kept it from becoming a tragedy after the cancers struck, spreading from his thyroid to his jaw. A series of surgeries and other medical procedures stole his voice and his ability to eat, turning his face into a caricature. Through it all, his writing kept getting more soulful.
Ebert was always kind and generous in his dealings with me. He seemed to like people . . . and he loved movies. For his encyclopedic knowledge and razor-sharp insight, it was his enthusiasm and compassion that became the most abiding qualities of his writing. Movies are, after all, the way we tell our stories - and he was my most trusted source to explore their stories.
For all the challenges he faced with such grace, worsened by a decade of dashed hopes as one medical procedure after another failed, losing his voice was the sort of metaphor he would have appreciated, if he were watching it on a movie screen.
When Ebert started his career, movies were larger than life, glimmering with stars' faces in huge close-ups, or hundreds of extras building pyramids or refighting World War II all the way to the silver-screen horizon. But just as the ravages of his disease kept shrinking his body and resculpting his face, movies, were also getting smaller. Deco movie palaces gave way to mall megaplexes; 35-mm film reels morphed into tapes, then discs, then downloads. Screen sizes shrunk, too, through the smallest megaplex auditoriums to something that fit comfortably in your living room to something that now fits comfortably in your pocket.
And despite today's powers of special effects and computers to generate epic action on unimaginable scales, the scope of cinema has shrunk as well. Under the avalanche of Dolby noise, there's far less illumination about what being human means.
It was a blessing for us all that Ebert was our guide when movies were at their pinnacle.
His dignified exit, sad as it was, was well timed. Golden ages are fleeting things, after all, and so are golden voices.
As for Blank, he was a soft-spoken Southern teddy bear of a man with a twinkle in his eye and an unflagging cinematic sense for music's soul, irony and the messy truths of being human. Before there were any such things as music videos or MTV, he laid their foundations. The subjects of his gorgeously shot docs, were Highway 61 bluesmen, Tex-Mex and zydeco legends, eccentric German director Werner Herzog, gap-toothed women, the wondrous powers of garlic, and more - each equally magical.
Like Ebert, he colored outside the lines, enlarging his art form in the process. He could not only get to the soul of a culture through its music; he could turn light rippling on the surface of a lake into high art.
(His work outlives him. That's why God created Google. Check it out.)
Movies don't feel quite as wonderful today as they did when these guys were on the job.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org