Roger Ebert was a tremendous film critic and is pretty easily the most well-known and beloved writer about film in American history. His death today after a long, very public, battle with cancer is a tremendous loss to the entire film community and we here at The Addison Recorder extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends. There have been a lot of tributes to him pouring in since the news of his passing broke this afternoon, and I wanted to whip something together that expressed how important Ebert was in my life. The thing is, I cannot begin to express the impact he had on me.
It’s absolute hyperbole, but discovering Ebert’s “Great Movies” collection of essays on his website during my high school years was something of a religious experience for me. When I was just beginning to explore cinema (my post-Rushmore phase is you recall my Moonrise Kingdom review) that series of essays became my gateway into the world of film. Clicking through his writing about movies as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and Aguirre, the Wrath of God was a transformative experience for me. Not only did Ebert’s writing, with its trademark clarity and insight, fill me with a need to see every film he loved, but his entire philosophy started to become my own. He saw each film as a living document, a piece of popular art meant to cause reaction in its viewers and prompt discussion afterwards. It was to be judged based on whether or not it was effective in its own goals, not based on preconceived ideas of its merit or our own projections of what it should have been. Further, every opinion about a film was valid so long as it could be properly defended. There was no right or wrong reaction to a film, just a subjective experience that each audience member went through differently. It’s up to the viewer/critic to articulate and defend their experience of the film, but there was never a “correct” one. Admittedly, I have a very hard time seeing his reception of Crash as the best film of 2005 being anything other than wildly incorrect, but I loved to hear his defenses of outré positions like that one. It is already one of my great regrets that I lived in Chicago with Ebert for nearly four years and never tried to engage in just such a debate with a man noted for his generosity of time and insight with young writers and critics.
Even beyond film criticism Ebert’s thoughts have been deeply formative. Like me, he was raised Catholic and eventually fell away from the Church and belief in a higher power in general. His spent much of his final years, after cancer robbed him of his lower jaw and the ability to speak, writing extensively about life, death, the universe, and what it all meant. As some someone who had come so close to leaving it all behind his wisdom about the beauty and meaning inherent to existence itself was astonishing and affecting. Though they were mere blog posts, these writing cut past all the layers of starchy comfort and theology that muss up religion for me. I will quote here from his memoir Life Itself to demonstrate what I mean:
“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.
O’Rourke’s had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:
I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.
That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
Reading that today after I learned of Ebert’s passing created a storm of emotion in me. What he espouses sounds like cold comfort compared to the joys and riches of the afterlife promised in every religion, but I think he was correct. He saw nothing in his future but the continued decay of his aging and weakened body and embraced it. When it happened, as it did today, he would embrace death knowing full well that he had paid the world an enormous kindness through his writing and that was enough. It’s still hard for me to accept that I will end and that will be that (the very idea can cause me to well with tears), but striving to live with kindness towards others, happiness with myself, and always seeking greater knowledge and understanding will make that final passage all the more joyous and comforting someday. In the meantime, there’s always new movies to watch, enjoy, and dissect the way that Ebert taught me to.