A member of humankind’s eternal audience: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

April 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Roger_EbertRoger Ebert’s essential optimism was in evidence as recently as last Tuesday, two days before he succumbed to cancer at the age of seventy.

In a blog post on his website, Ebert announced that health problems necessitated slowing down the pace of his output, which had reached an astounding 306 movie reviews in the previous year, to say nothing of his regular blog posts, occasional writing, and entries to The New Yorker‘s weekly cartoon caption contest. But the film critic had recently discovered that what he termed a “painful fracture” was in fact cancer. Earlier surgery for thyroid cancer had cost Ebert most of his lower jaw, plus the ability to talk, eat, and drink. The recurrence of the disease, Ebert wrote, was forcing him to take a “leave of presence”:

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

Less than forty-eight hours after publishing those words, America’s best-known film critic was dead.

And yet, even at the moment of his death, Ebert by all accounts retained a positive outlook. A note from his widow, Chaz Ebert, describes the critic’s family preparing to take him home from the hospital: “We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”

That quiet dignity characterized Ebert during the very public course of his illness. Following the surgery to remove part of his jaw, Ebert refused to hide his disfigurement: in 2010 a lengthy profile ran in Esquire magazine, along with pictures of Ebert’s radically altered facial structure. In a 2011 essay for Salon, Ebert wrote that he did not fear death because, although he was raised Roman Catholic, he did not believe in an afterlife:

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

In the same essay, Ebert quotes Whitman: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”

The Whitman quote is significant, because it attests to Ebert’s love of the written word; his movie reviews are peppered with references to novelists, poets, essayists, and philosophers. Perhaps this is the source of his highly literate take on the art of motion pictures and their narratives. It is most probably also the source of his wit, which was plentiful and, it must be admitted, could be cutting. When Vincent Gallo referred to Ebert as a “fat pig” after the latter said that Gallo’s film The Brown Bunny was “the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” Ebert responded by writing, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

When Ebert hated a film, he could be absolutely savage, but his savagery was cut with an abiding intelligence and a sharp sense of humour. His review of the 2001 Jason Biggs/Jack Black comedy Saving Silverman, for instance, refers to another, more favourable online review:

Consider my friend James Berardinelli, the best of the Web-based critics. No doubt 10 days of oxygen deprivation at the Sundance Film Festival helped inspire his three-star review, in which he reports optimistically, “Saving Silverman has its share of pratfalls and slapstick moments, but there’s almost no flatulence.” Here’s a critical rule of thumb: You know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to praising a movie for its absence of fart jokes, and have to add “almost.”

And yet he was equally passionate about films he loved, of which there were many. Goodfellas, Fitzcarraldo, Princess Mononoke, Ran, Monsieur Hire, E.T., Medium Cool, Halloween, Tootsie: all received four-star reviews and testify to Ebert’s wide-ranging tastes and enthusiasms.

In retrospect, one of Ebert’s most melancholic recent four-star reviews was for Michael Haneke’s Academy Award–winning Amour, about a husband struggling to care for his wife during her protracted death. For what the review demonstrates about Ebert’s stoicism, his emotional fortitude, and his absolute faith in the transcendent power of cinema, it is worth quoting at length:

Old age isn’t for sissies, and neither is this film. [Jean-Louis] Trintignant and [Emmanuelle] Riva courageously take on these roles, which strip aside all the glamor of their long careers (he starred in A Man and a Woman, she most famously in Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Their beauty has faded, but it glows from within. It accepts unflinchingly the realities of age, failure, and the disintegration of the ego.

Yes, and to watch Amour invites us — another audience — to accept them, too. When I saw Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), I was young and eager and excited to be attending one of the first French art films I’d ever seen. It helped teach me what it was, and who I was. Now I see that the film, its actors, and its meaning have all been carried on, and that the firemen are going to come looking for all of us one of these days, sooner or later.

This is now. We are filled with optimism and expectation. Why would we want to see such a film, however brilliantly it has been made? I think it’s because a film like Amour has a lesson for us that only the cinema can teach: the cinema, with its heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind’s eternal audience.

Writing on Ebert’s website, Jim Emerson refers to Ebert’s last review, which Emerson received on March 16, marked “FOR USE as needed.” It is a review of the latest Terence Malick movie. The title of that film, which Emerson says Ebert “liked quite a lot,” is To the Wonder.