A few minutes ago, I found out that one of my favorite writers, Roger Ebert, passed away at the age of 70. He’d battled cancer for the last several years, and last night posted what turned out to be his final column on his website, thanking his readers, informing them that he was going to take what he called “a leave of presence” while he devoted time to other subjects, allowing the film critics he’d handpicked over the past couple of years to continue writing reviews.
He also expressed optimism that he could now review only the films that he wanted to review, that he could take more time for himself.
It is possible he knew he was nearing the end as he wrote this and simply didn’t want to let on to his readers. When his longtime friend Gene Siskel passed away, Roger wrote a beautiful piece about him and spoke of how much he admired the way Gene handled his illness. I suspect that he took those lessons from Gene in how he handled his own illness over the last few years.
The last few years saw him flourishing as a writer even as he lost the ability to speak (cancer forced doctors to remove part of his jaw in 2006—he eventually began using a computerized voice system). His musings on his page, rogerebert.com, included not only reviews of current film, but reviews of the Great Movies (three books worth, with a fourth in the planning stages), his musings on politics and society (which kicked up plenty of dust), and most notably, his writings about his illness and how he was progressing through treatment.
Roger Ebert managed to walk a perfect balance as a film critic. He was deeply educated in film but never snobbish in his reviews. He was just as entertained by well-executed horror films like the original versions of Halloween and Dawn of the Dead as was by films the rest of the critical establishment fawned over. He was an avowed lover of science-fiction, a major proponent of the Internet as a communication tool, and relentless in his defense of overlooked films. His film festival, Ebertfest, screened films that Roger fiercely believed which had somehow slipped under the radar. Films like Tim Blake Nelson’s almost totally ignored Leaves of Grass and Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game (which went direct to video, but which Ebert included in his Great Movies).
In 1999, he saw a film called Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, which was largely dismissed by most critics. Roger was absolutely convinced it was a seminal film. He named it his top film of the year and, for the first time, contributed a commentary track to its DVD release. His vocal support of it single-handedly swayed critical opinion of it and gave it a second life, and the film has since come to be regarded as a sci-fi classic.
(Roger did the same thing for Proyas again a few years later when Knowing came out—strongly defending it as a brilliant work of art while many critics labeled it as one of the worst films of the year.)
He was frequently ahead of the curve on films that were poorly regarded at the time of release (he was one of the earliest defenders of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde). And sometimes he missed the boat completely. He would regularly write about how he must have missed something in Raising Arizona and The Usual Suspects since people stopped him on the street regularly to tell him what and idiot he was for giving them bad reviews.
But that was one of the things that made him so special as a critic. He was willing to be self-effacing, to even question his own judgment as a critic. He gave the 1995 film Angus a positive review, not necessarily because he thought it was good, but because he felt he was, at long last, looking at a movie character who reminded him of himself. He even considered giving a thumbs up to Dumb and Dumber purely for the bit with the blind kid and the parakeet, during which he admitted he “laughed so hard I embarrassed myself.”
That was one side of his criticism. Yes, he was willing to defend a dumb comedy as long as it was smart about how it was dumb. And he was equally willing to give a genre picture four stars if it was a four star example of what could be done with that genre (see his review for Spiderman 2). But he was highly critical of most mainstream slop that other TV critics tended to fawn over. And he was also less likely to give a film a negative review simply because it was popular (or populist).
He loved high art. He loved films that swung for the fences even when they didn’t connect. And he would defend art house cinema from those who found it self-aggrandizing and infuriatingly vague. There was great chastising of critics for their love of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but Roger elegantly defended it, and even included it among his ten greatest films of all time in the most recent Sight and Sound poll.
It was this ability to appreciate the high and the low of cinema, to never discount either one, and to write excellent commentary on films that deserved it, and quite a few that didn’t, that made him such an extraordinary critic. He was a rare combination in that he was highly respected by the old guard of his profession as well as the young up and comers of the Internet age, and could manage to be popular with audiences at the same time.
But I said at the beginning of this that he was one of my favorite writers, and that goes beyond film criticism. Since my mother introduced me to his show in the 80’s, he’s been my go-to guy for movie reviews. But his writings over the past few years have left an impression on me like few others. I think it started after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when he wrote a simple plea for the site to be remade over as a park, where things could be grown as a reminder of the triumph of life, of the triumph of hope, and that the site would give us all “just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it.”
Over the last few years, his journal entries focused heavily on his illness and his political beliefs. He was willing to engage with those who disagreed with him, and to engage with himself on how he was handling the breakdown of his body. His commentaries brimmed with optimism, and he was clearly grateful that the Internet had allowed him to embrace his audience as never before.
One of my favorite entries came shortly after the surgery that rendered him unable to take food orally. The entry, titled “Nil by Mouth,” can be found here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/01/nil_by_mouth.html
I won’t quote from it. Just go give it a read.
The news that Roger Ebert died today hit me harder than that of any writer I didn’t know personally since Hunter Thompson died eight years ago. And I suppose that has to do with the regular journal entries he kept up on his site. What came across at all times was Roger’s absolute love of writing. It bubbled up to the surface no matter what subject he was writing about. The Hawaii Film Festival. Catholicism. Food. His old friend Gene Siskel. You could just sense what a kick he got out of sitting down at his keyboard. And later, you could sense how it was keeping him sane and giving him a voice at a time he most needed to still be heard.
In 2009, he wrote the following in a journal entry entitled “Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
Safe travels, Roger. See you at the movies.
* * *
For the full text of Roger’s “Go Gentle Into That Good Night” entry, click here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/05/go_gently_into_that_good_night.html
You should also check out Chris Jones’s excellent 2010 profile on Roger for Esquire, which can be found here: http://www.esquire.com/features/roger-ebert-0310