It’s as I said in my review for “Starting Out in the Evening”: Come obscurity, irrelevance, success, or fame, a writer still has to write, regardless. In Roger Ebert’s case it was, come disease, sickness, and life altering illness, a writer still has to write. And Roger Ebert, no matter what he faced in his life, had to write. In the end, whether you agreed with him, hated his ability to raise controversy, or just had a relative indifference toward him, very few movie critics changed the world of cinema and the landscape of writing as he did. It’s with a heavy heart that I write about the passing of my favorite movie critic of all time, as Roger was a man who seemed to almost know he was dying.
He’s a man I looked to for interesting opinions, witty observations and purely intellectual discussions in his online journal. Every Friday for the past six years his newsletter arrived in my email and scoured through his reviews for the week’s newest releases, and went on for the weekend. For many, many years I watched “Siskel & Ebert” and stuck with it until it was shamelessly cancelled without a goodbye and re-tooled with an embarrassing angle. I stuck with Ebert through his attempts to launch a new television show, and his inevitable foray in to online subscriptions to help fund his website.
Roger was a private man, but he was also one who loved bringing his fans in to certain portions of his life to provide them with insight as to who he was, and what he thought of certain ideas concerning other art forms, including his very controversial stance on video games. When asked why he wasn’t intent on writing an autobiography, Ebert explained that his online journal basically told everything about himself that he could, to his fans. It’s almost with a degree of foresight that Roger Ebert seemed to turn out online journal after online journal about his childhood, his youth, his experiences in the movies, and so on. Roger Ebert, though he never mentioned it, almost seemed to know he was running on borrowed time. And he did what he loved until the very end. He watched movies, and he wrote about them.
Not many people go to their graves doing what they loved most in life. Even in spite of a cancer that left him with the inability to eat, forcing him to face a life changing surgery that would forever take away his talent for speaking and his ability to vocally express himself, Roger sought solace in the written word and used it as his world to communicate, connect, and ultimately sign off to his legions of loyal fans that stuck with him through thick and thin. I wish I could say I had a personal relationship with Roger Ebert, but I really didn’t. The most interaction I had with Mr. Ebert was when I emailed his letter column about how “Manderlay” was a better film than “Dogville,” to which he responded with “I agree, it’s a better film, overall.” And back in 2009, Roger Ebert quoted me in his letter column on his website about my defense of Diablo Cody and her unusual way of writing characters that many lambasted her for.
In either case, however brief, Roger made sure to address everyone he could, and made his fans feel unique and loved. He rubbed many people the wrong way in his later years, garnering controversy through his twitter account, but in spite of that, his fans stuck by him and intended on keeping the writer giving out his thoughts on some of the best and worst films released in theaters. It’s an odd irony that his loss of speech left him with the capability of giving a thumbs up to people to signify joy, happiness, and approval, and regardless of his suffering he always seemed to look on the brighter side of life. His account of losing his sensation for taste, and his ability to consume liquids and food is heartbreaking, and like a lost limb, Ebert went through a long stage of mourning for his lost function of consuming, craving Creme Soda for a very long time. He expresses in an article about how he suddenly craved it so badly it became painful to him. There’s also the discussion of how many of his friends found it cruel to eat in his company, to which Roger would write “Enjoy the food for me.”
In spite of losing that keen ability to appreciate the smells and tastes of the world, Roger Ebert always stayed true to his course of bringing his audience in to his world, and giving them a eye to eye view of what he endured. He never wanted pity, so much as he wanted respect. And in his final years, he did the best he could to give his audience love, appreciation, and the privilege of his presence in film festivals and the like. Like many others, Roger Ebert influenced my love for film, and influenced my need to write about all facets of film no matter how minute, because, whether you agreed or not, he knew how to express his ideas and do so with a keen clarity that made his opinion tower over many other movie critics working with him. He may not be able to see this year’s Oscar contenders, or bask in the joy of his favorite film directors again, but he is still alive in every word he ever published, every book he ever wrote, and every smile he ever gave his fans.
Every time the screen brightens in a packed movie theater, he’ll be there. Every time someone expresses their joy for a movie, he’ll be there. And every time a young reader looks up an article he’s written and decides “I want to be a writer, too.” That’s where he’ll live on.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Ebert.