Roger Ebert 1942-2013
Just yesterday I was reading Roger Ebert’s “Leave of Presence” post, addressing 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.
Then I headed over to Mark Evanier’s blog News from ME and upon refreshing the page discovered his brief note on Ebert’s passing. I swore out loud to nobody but myself and the computer screen. 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 three years ago — one that’s quite personal and remains a favorite of mine, despite being a bit scattered. (A year in, I was still figuring out how to blog with an ability to focus 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 viewers who wanted to align themselves with one over the other. Either could belittle his partner’s recommendation of a light or lowbrow offering, 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 — after 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 the present 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 sole reason I began seeking out film criticism, I 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 terms of storytelling than 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 keep his concise, matter-of-fact brevity in mind.
“No good film is too long,” he said, as I frequently recall. “No bad movie is short enough.” This refrain alone is award-worthy.
And that, given the post of mine linked to above, 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 he’s at peace, although of course my heart goes out to his wife, family, and friends. As with Siskel — yet more so, due to what he publicly endured this past decade — I feel a personal loss.
My fervent hope is that a realm exists 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.
Photo: Unknown, circa 1981.