He knew. He had to have known. His last blog entry — posted two days before he died — had the tone of a fond goodbye, though, to comfort the rest of us, he wrote a lot about the plans he had for the future, the future I’m guessing he knew he didn’t have. He would leave workaday film reviewing to others, and concentrate on things that meant more to him. His Ebertfest. The forthcoming documentary about him, which will now have a sad period at its conclusion that none of us wanted. His “Great Movies” column. Even if he didn’t consciously know, some part of him must have. The blog entry opens with “Thank you” — he was never one for burying the lede — and ends with “I’ll see you at the movies.”
Roger Ebert, as I’ve said elsewhere, made a whole lot of us want to see and think about and write about movies with greater precision and passion. Throughout the many health demons that plagued him in his final years, one constant remained: his voice. It was robbed from him physically, but it continued in print. We could still hear it in our heads as we read him. Now the voice is gone, though we can still call it up from any of his thousands of reviews, or watch him on YouTube if we literally need to hear that avuncular, sane, midwestern sound.
You don’t need to agree with everything someone believes in order to like them, and you don’t need to agree with everything a film critic writes in order to like their reviews. The entire point of Blue Velvet seemed to go whistling over Ebert’s head and far out to sea, but his thoughts on the film are valuable just the same. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow’s maxim “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” In recent years I grew weary of people pointing out where Ebert got this or that fact wrong in a review. So what? He was dealing with far graver things in his life than some plot point in a forgettable Hollywood entertainment. His emotional responses were still sound, and those, really, are what a critic has to work with. Give me someone who responds openly and whole-heartedly to a film over someone who gets all the details right but doesn’t rise to the film with any soul.
I never met him, and now never will, but I felt I knew him, feel I know him. That was true even before I read his memoir Life Itself. Even when his reviews contained no autobiographical element, he revealed himself, as all good writers do and must. Years before he officially declared himself a recovering alcoholic, review after review of films dealing with addiction (even the bad films, especially the bad films) spoke of firsthand understanding of and compassion for the slave to a chemical.
Ebert has two entire books devoted to negative reviews, and yet he never struck me as mean. Even at his most splenetic, he came across as a guy who’d just drunk a glass of sour milk, when all he’d wanted was a good honest normal glass of milk, and had been assured it was a great glass of milk. He wanted you to know that, no, this milk is terrible; don’t drink it; I drank it so that you don’t have to. He seldom gave the impression that he was dumping on a movie for the sadistic pleasure of it. He’d wasted hours of his ever-decreasing life on the damn thing and now he had to make something out of it. Sometimes a little bitter glee did show. He was only human.
Ebert’s first review (more exactly, “just about the first movie review I ever wrote”) was of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Not a bad way to start. The final review he posted was of The Host — not the Korean kaiju film but the shitty Hollywood one based on the shitty Stephenie Meyer book. I’m hoping there’s something else on his desk somewhere. Some final fragments of thought about, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca or even Dark City. In Ebert’s career, in his life span, you go from Fellini to teen bullshit. You don’t want to dwell on that too much.¹
No, you want to think about a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, day in and day out, for decades. You want to think about a man who did what he could while he could to add to the conversation about art. You want to think about the work he championed, the work he accomplished, the work he left us, the work we can sure try like hell to continue in his honor. We can’t be Roger Ebert but we can try to be us with as much grace and wit and honesty as he was himself.
¹As it turns out, according to Jim Emerson, the final movie Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which seems more appropriate.