Thursday, April 04, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

What can I say? Too much, and yet not enough. Roger Ebert, the most famous and most beloved film critic in the country - if not the world - has passed on. I'm both surprised and unsurprised at how hard the news has hit not just me, but movie lovers everywhere. Surprised in that his death wasn't exactly a shock - it's been an impending reality ever since he began undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer in the mid-2000s. (He didn't let the prospect faze him - witness this lovely passage from his memoir Life Itself, which is still one of the most moving reflections on death I've ever read.) Unsurprised in that his loss, however foreseeable, is both devastating and incalculable.

Ebert embodied what's best about America. He was a man from the Midwest, from a middle-class family, an enterprising journalist who was able to marry his deep love of movies with his outstanding ability to communicate, and to parlay the union into a wildly successful career. He was a true cineaste, with a discerning eye and sometimes idiosyncratic tastes, but he was also an everyman who never condescended to his audience. He engaged with them as equals, and did it with such clarity and intelligence that everyone could appreciate him, even if not everyone agreed with him. Late in life, he suffered a particularly ghoulish form of cancer that necessitated the partial removal of his jaw, stripping him of his ability to talk and eat and reducing him visually to a barely recognizable version of himself. He endured it all, at least publicly, with grace and humor. And he wrote to the end, showing no drop-off in the quality of his writing or his insights...or his greatest gift, his abiding humanity.

Like a lot of movie lovers who grew up in the '80s and '90s, my first memories of Ebert go back to watching Siskel and Ebert on TV in their weekly program "At the Movies." My early impressions: Siskel was the thin, caustic one; Ebert was the chubby, slightly kinder one. As I grew old enough to form my own opinions on movies, I found myself agreeing more often with Siskel than Ebert and occasionally getting annoyed with the latter as a result. It wasn't until I got to college that I started reading Ebert's reviews (and later, his blog) regularly and realized that while I still disagreed plenty often with him, he was a terrific writer and a smart critic, blessed with a hilariously deadpan wit and an exceptionally compassionate and generous mind. He didn't just write about movies, either; he wasn't shy about wading into the minefield of political writing, and stood by his views firmly but without arrogance. It warmed my heart, of course, that his politics tallied almost perfectly with mine - he was an unabashed liberal and a secular humanist, and saw no reason to hide it - but he also treated others' contrary views with courtesy and respect.

And then came the cancer. The first photo I saw of him after the jaw removal surgery - the lower part of his face collapsed into a kind of ghastly, pouchy grin - hurt me like an almost physical pain. As did reading about the loss of his voice and his having to be fed intravenously. At the same time, I admired his sheer determination not to let any of it interfere with his life's calling: watching movies and communicating with as many people as possible, as persuasively and eloquently as possible. He had become a role model for me in both respects, and that didn't change with his illness.

But in both those respects, as well, his passing marks the end of an era. No film critic (except maybe Pauline Kael) had previously attained such public stature or such widespread recognition and reverence. And in the current universe, where everyone can get online and opine publicly on what they just saw, it's unlikely anyone ever will. This isn't a dig at the democratization of criticism via the Internet, which has proliferated crap, sure, and made it even harder to get a stable, paying critic's gig than it was before, but has also produced a lot of high-quality writing and arguably more vibrant, widely accessible discussion of movies (and other forms of arts & entertainment) than was previously possible. Ebert himself embraced its opportunities to reach out to a broader community of film lovers, rather than treating it as a threat to his existence. Other critics have tried to emulate his example, with mixed results.

Long story short, there will never be another Roger Ebert. He was one of the very rare movie critics who was able to bridge the pre- and post-digital world with unqualified success. And he was the only one who managed to become a household name through the old media only to *expand* his audience through the new. He was fortunate in that respect. He also deserved every bit of his good fortune.

I can't think of a better way of closing this rambling eulogy than quoting words from the man himself that, to me, summarize everything that was both good and great about his life.

I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. 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.

Truer words never spoken. Rest in peace, Roger. You just got thousands - no, millions - of thumbs up for a beautiful life, beautifully lived.


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