Roger Ebert 1942-2013
It seems like just yesterday that I was reading Roger Ebert's "Leave of Presence" post, referencing the discovery of more cancer in his body — this, after he'd endured so much — and his promise to write about what he could, when he could, during treatment.
In fact, as I type these words, it was just yesterday.
Then I headed over to Mark Evanier's blog News from ME. After reading Mark's obit of Archie writer George Gladir, I refreshed the page and discovered his brief note on Ebert's passing. I said, out loud to nobody but myself and the computer screen, "Oh crap." Ebert's open letter, noting the 46th anniversary this week of his employment at The Chicago Sun-Times and looking ahead to an expansion of rogerebert.com and other ventures, hadn't sounded like the words of a man who expected to leave this world days later.
I grew up watching Ebert and Gene Siskel on At the Movies, et al., as I wrote in a piece here just over three years ago — one whose meat is quite personal and, I'm happy to say, which I still find to be some of my best writing on the blog, despite the fact that I shouldn't have bothered with the first and last paragraphs. (A year in, I was still figuring out how to blog, period, let alone with an ability to concentrate and an Internet connection that could both be described as fly-by-night.)
Siskel and Ebert, on TV, were effusive in their love of film and confounding for those of us who wanted to align ourselves with one over the other. Either could belittle his partner's recommendation of something light or lowbrow, yet each could champion such films as well, and having to argue in favor of even a mild recommendation often ignited greater passion. I hated when they were dismissive of one another. I loved discovering — upon Siskel's ill health and death in 1999, circumstances decidedly notwithstanding — just how deep their friendship had truly become.
Ebert and Siskel and Ebert's later partner Richard Roeper got on television because they could write — perhaps an irony in this day but not at all a paradox at the time. Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in addition to scorn from fellow critics who felt that his and Siskel's thumbs up and down reduced critical analysis to absurdly simplistic verdicts. I'm here to tell you that while, yes, I was already a reader, and Ebert was hardly the only reason I began seeking out film criticism, I have found his pith, insight, and economy of words as captivating in print as he and his foils were on the air.
I'm aware of several folks who've influenced the way I write comics — something I haven't done for ages now — more in visual and storytelling terms than in terms of wordsmithery. Many artists have influenced the way I draw, and many upon many beyond that have styles I admire. I could only point to a few writers who influence my nonfiction prose, however. Ebert is one of them. I don't and can't write like him, exactly, but despite evidence to the contrary I nearly always have his concise, matter-of-fact brevity in my mind.
"No good film is too long," he said, as I constantly recall and as Neil Steinberg quoted in his Sun-Times obituary. "No bad movie is short enough." This refrain alone is worth some kind of award.
And that, given the post of mine linked to a few paragraphs earlier, is more than I thought I would say about Roger Ebert today, but I have to make a final point before closing.
Ebert is one of those rare people who inspired in two or three entirely different fashions. He was a great critic precisely because while he could be equally as harsh as he could rhapsodic about individual films, he was an unwavering supporter of film. He didn't just write and write well; he was an educator and philanthropist in the world of cinema too. Then fate decreed that he should do those things while he struggled with great personal hardships, dire health situations that literally robbed him of his voice — and he responded by keeping his voice alive on paper and electronically. I have tried, without enough success, to use his perseverance as an example in living my own life with the frustrations of chronic illness.
He did not always let us see his pain. Sometimes he did, and that is perhaps the greater service. I'm glad that he's at peace, although of course my heart goes out to his wife, family, and friends. As with Siskel, yet more so thanks to what he endured and what he gave us — me — this past decade, I feel a personal, palpable loss.
I hope and trust that there is a realm in which Roger has been welcomed, reunited with old friends, and invited to the greatest film festival you could possibly imagine, where none of the films are too long.
Chaz Ebert released a statement today that can be found at Roger's online journal along with a collection of remembrances.
Update: Donations can be made in Roger's name to the nonprofit Ebert Foundation, which supports arts and education programs, c/o Northern Trust, 50 S. LaSalle St., Chicago, 60603.
The photo that leads off this post was grabbed from Ebert's last journal entry. It was used for his 1984 book A Kiss Is Still a Kiss. If anyone can track down the photo credit and copyright for me before I find it myself, that would be greatly appreciated.