I wanted to take a moment this weekend to pay my respects to Roger Ebert, the film critic who died this week at the age of 70, after a long and public bout with cancer. I count myself as a movie-lover, so his death meant something to me. I am also a Chicagoan, as he was, and of course the man was a near-legend here. I very much regret that I never got the chance to meet him.
I am a passionate fan of good movie criticism, but truth be told, Ebert was never one of my favorite film critics. His tastes were a lot more mainstream than mine, and I often disagreed with him, particularly towards the end, when he seemed to like virtually everything. But he was the last film critic with a huge mass readership, and in my lifetime I can’t think of anyone else, with the possible exceptions of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarentino, who has done more to advocate for film culture to a mass audience. On their tv show, Ebert and his sparring partner, the late film critic Gene Siskel, taught a generation of moviegoers how to discuss and analyze a film. For example, for Farran Smith Nehme, Ebert “planted the idea that if you had a blast watching a movie, that alone meant it was worth some serious thought.” And I’m sure many a budding cinephile used Ebert’s Great Movies books as the building blocks for her cinematic education.
To me, though, the single most remarkable thing about Roger Ebert, and the thing that most gloriously brought out the man’s full on, damn-the-torpedos humanity, was the grace with which he handled an illness that many people would have experienced as devastating. Chris Jones’ extraordinary 2010 Esquire profile tells much of this story. In 2006, Roger’s lower jaw was removed to prevent the spread of cancer, and after that he was never able to eat, drink, or speak again. Recovery was painful, precarious, and slow, and even when he was as recovered as he was ever going to be, his appearance, without his jaw, was odd.
But rather than living like a depressed recluse, Ebert chose to embrace life anew. Not only did he begin appearing in public and reviewing films again; through social media, he reinvented himself as a writer. Among Ebert’s greatest gifts as a writer and human being was his contagious enthusiasm and his capacity for joy, and these stood him in good stead during the disability and severe illness that marked those last years. He seemed determine to soak up every last drop of joy he had coming to him. And damn if he didn’t succeed! Among other things, his public visibility and renewed vigor as a writer were a victory for disability rights.
It’s that last, writerly incarnation of Roger Ebert — Ebert the furiously prolific blogger, tweeter, and all-round web presence — that made him feel like such an intimate part of so many people’s lives. It’s also what made his loss feel so peculiarly personal. He wrote constantly, about all manner of things, and if you followed him long enough you got the sense, or the illusion at least, that you knew him pretty well.
Ebert clearly took pleasure in interacting with his readers, and for a writer of his stature, that was is rare enough. Rarer still, he responded with generosity and humility to his critics, even the non-famous ones — and on the internets, that’s a phenomenon only slightly less unusual than a unicorn. (In her lovely Ebert tribute, Lesley Kinzel recounts one such instance of his willingness to accept criticism).
I have many favorites among the pieces Ebert wrote in his last years. Some of the ones that stand out are this one, about not being able to eat or drink; this one, about not knowing if there is a God; this one, about his serenity in contemplating death; this piece which carries the awesome title, “Okay, kids, play on my lawn,” in which he graciously takes back some cranky things he said about video games; and this one, about the love of his life, his wife of over 20 years, Chaz. I defy you to read it without tearing up.
My personal favorite of all his essays, though, is this one, about his alcoholism and recovery in AA. It is funny, honest, unpretentious, eloquent. Above all, the man’s compassion and humanism shines through. I have friends in the Chicago AA community, and after Ebert published that article, one of them mentioned that he’d known Ebert from AA meetings. (This was not breaking the AA anonymity rule, because Ebert had outed himself with the article). He said Ebert had done tireless service within Chicago AA, over many decades, and that he never made a big deal out of his celebrity. He was just Roger E., an alcoholic among other alcoholics.
Getting back to Roger Ebert in the context of film: it does trouble me that, as I mentioned previously, Ebert was the last film critic with a huge mass audience. Film attendance in theaters have has been declining for decades, and films no longer seem to hold the place in the popular imagination they once did — television clearly holds the edge there, and it’s getting better than ever.
I still manage to discover a fair number of engaging, exciting contemporary films out there, but they’re getting increasingly hard to find, and in any case Hollywood usually isn’t making them; independent and overseas studios are. The conversion from film to digital continues apace. It’s been said that “[f]ilm historians will likely look back on 2012 as the year that spelled the death knell for film as a mass medium,” and that judgment may well turn out to be correct.
I fervently hope that film — and particularly, film as film as opposed to digital, and in a theater, on a big screen — remains a mass art. I never want to see the day when it becomes a fine art for elite, specialized audiences, on the order of opera or classical music, but sometimes it seems as if it’s going there.
In the 24 hours after Ebert died I did the kinds of things that I, as a movie-lover, normally do. I watched Heroes for Sale, an uneven but compelling 1933 William Wellman precode that I’d recorded a while back on TCM. Featuring morphine addiction, the mistreatment of returning WWI veterans, homelessness, and a labor riot, it’s a fascinating Depression artefact from the Warners hardboiled school. That night, I met a friend at the Gene Siskel FIlm Center and saw Le Pont du Nord, a strange and bewitching 1981 thriller by the great Jacques Rivette that’s finally getting a release here. I am happy to report that the Rivette screening was packed; however, honesty compels to note that the theater was not large.
Nevertheless, I think Roger Ebert would have been pleased. Cinema culture in Chicago is still fairly vibrant. We mean to keep it that way, even as we mourn one of its most ardent champions.