From the number of times this story turned up in my Facebook feed yesterday I have to assume everyone’s seen it by now, but not all of you stay online all day, so what the hell. It’s about Roger Ebert, and what his life is like now that he’s lost the ability to speak, eat and drink. (He lost his jaw to cancer four years ago, and reconstructive surgery has been one failure after another.)
Ebert posed for a picture; with his imperfectly fixed face, that requires no small amount of courage in and of itself. I’m glad he did, not just because it’s better to show one’s broken face than to hide it, but because even a face that’s half-gone can still show the man within. Look at the eyes, squinched a little in what looks like merriment, although you can’t say for sure at first glance — the mouth has been shaped by surgeons into a simulacrum of a smile, and maybe that’s what leads your impression. But once you read the story, you know: This is a man who smiles, who still smiles, who in fact seems to be smiling much of the time. He’s angered not by the fate of his physical body, but by the same things he was angered by before, that anger us all — petty bullshit, money-grubbing, spotty internet service.
There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.
I came late to my appreciation of Ebert. I was a Siskel partisan, once upon a time. Siskel was like me — snooty, irritable, a fan of Art. Ebert, the tabloid critic, was more of the hoi polloi, giving three and a half stars to action movies, space epics and other crap. It was a while before I realized he was as difficult to please as any discerning arbiter, but he knew enough about movies and why people see them to judge them as individuals. “Con Air” is not “Citizen Kane,” but he didn’t see any reason to rub anyone’s nose in it if they preferred action to Orson Welles. Mostly, I was in awe of his productivity. It’s pretty common — or was — for large newspapers to have an A critic and a B critic, the latter of whom was sometimes a freelancer. The A critic does the big-movie reviews and most of the related stories, roundups and the like, while the B critic sweeps up behind him or her, or just lightens the load. It’s not unusual for half a dozen movies to open on a summer weekend, ranging from blockbusters to art-house fare, and that’s a lot of stuff to see, consider and review in a week. Five years ago, I changed planes in Chicago on a Friday and picked up a Sun-Times. Ebert had bylines on six reviews, and I believe they covered that range of ambition. His take on the barrel-bottom straight-to-video entry was as considered, and as respectful, as his thoughts on the $200 million tentpole playing in all the multiplexes.
Respectful doesn’t mean boot-licking, by the way. Like my old screenwriting teacher Terry, who was also a critic, he walks into every film expecting to enjoy himself. (That’s what the audience does, after all; why would you pay eight bucks to be punished?) To the extent that the film fulfills or disappoints that expectation is what he bases his reviews on. It seems like a small thing. It isn’t. You might think you’re a movie fan, but imagine what it would be like to be required to see everything, and then write about it afterward, to have to form an opinion, support the opinion, and then present it to a general audience in a more stylish way than merely saying whether it was awesome or sucked.
Now imagine doing it for 40 years or so, never losing your enthusiasm, and in fact adding to your workload with extra assignments like his Great Movies series (which began as a Sunday column, swapped off every other week with the music critic, who wrote about the Great Albums), and the TV show, and the teaching gigs, and the film-festival work, and all the rest of it.
Now add cancer and facial mutilation, the literal loss of your voice. Tell me how you feel about it then.
The fact Ebert is still at work in any capacity, much less at full speed, is nothing short of a miracle. His last extended leave, when he nearly died, he missed months of movies. When he came back, he resumed his old blistering pace, and then watched the movies he’d missed, a few at a time, writing reviews of them, so that the record would be complete. I think he knows what his opinion means to the moviegoing public. I don’t see a lot of movies in theaters, but I try to catch up with the bigs eventually, and I never feel like I’ve watched it all the way until I’ve opened the laptop afterward to see what Roger thought of it.
Lord knows he’s not perfect. I disagree with him on many films, and his fondness for Spike Lee will always come between us. But in every other way — expertise, attitude, practice — he is nothing short of a hero.
Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.
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, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” 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.
Years ago, I was watching the cultural kerfuffle over “The Passion of the Christ,” probably on Amy Welborn’s blog, because that was the sort of thing she wrote about a lot, back then. Ebert gave the film four stars, but the review is hardly worshipful, and he states outright that “it is the most violent movie I have ever seen.” I mentioned this review somewhere in her comments sections, and someone else retorted, Roger Ebert is an old man and he’s dying. His opinion no longer matters, or words to that effect. This was before his illness had taken its most serious tolls (he’s fought it for years), but I was amazed by not only the cruelty of that remark, but its utter ignorance. Roger Ebert’s opinion not only still matters, it will matter for a long time after he’s gone. If that isn’t the best epitaph a writer can hope for, I don’t know what is.