A reflection on Roger Ebert and why movies matter
It's been almost two weeks since film critic Roger Ebert died, and I rarely a day goes by that I don't think about him.
This isn't just because I grew up watching he and his rival critic Gene Siskel sparring passionately about the movies on PBS' "Sneak Previews," "At the Movies," and finally "Siskel & Ebert." Although certainly no other two people inspired me more to think critically about the films that I was seeing rather than just going along for the ride and accepting everything at face value.
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” Ebert once said, and that's perhaps the most important thing I learned from him. Outside of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, an energetic TV personality, and an obsessed movie fan, Ebert was above all a humanist. In a 1997 interview with Martin Scorsese, he illustrated his philosophy that films were important cultural artifacts; ways to identify with people and experiences you might never have come into contact with otherwise:
"What I feel so strongly in talking to people about movies, frequently people will — they know I'm a movie critic — they will discuss the subject matter as if that is what the film is about," he said. "A subject is neutral. People don't understand that. When people say, whenever anybody makes a statement, I don't like to go to movies about and then fill in the blank ... my response is, anyone who makes that statement is an idiot. I don't want to go to bad films about cowboys. I don't want to go to bad films about boxers."
No, the reason that I I've been thinking about Ebert pretty much every day since he died is because I miss his voice. Not his speaking voice, mind you (he lost that in 2006 after cancerous tissue in his jaw had to be removed), but his personality — so vital and alive. When the disease that would eventually kill him took his speech away, Ebert did just what he did when his TV show went off the air: He found another way to reach people.
More than anyone else from the days of "old media," Ebert opened up his heart, his life and his absolutely unfettered opinions and engaged directly with his fans and detractors on the Internet. His movie reviews became more reflective for sure, but the real revelations were what we learned about Roger were through his constant updates on Twitter (the account will live on, as Roger requested,) and his online journal. Sometimes these writings, which went straight from his computer to the world with the click of a tweet or a "publish" button on his blog, were movie-related, but that wasn't a requirement.
Mentions of the movies were almost always intertwined, however, because they informed so much of his life. I can relate.
Just recently, he had written a touching remembrance of his aunt, a piece on the tragedy in Newtown, and a brief yet hopeful couple of paragraphs about a recent hairline fracture that was keeping him bedridden once again. That journal was titled "Dirty Rotten Luck." The Internet became Roger's new outlet, and he found an appreciative and chatty audience. Between his journal entries, he also stepped up the amount of writing he published, breaking a personal yearly record by reviewing a whopping 306 movies in 2012.
The day before he died, Roger announced that the cancer had returned, but he was ready for new challenges and said he would have to slow down a bit. He was happy to be able to finally realize a lifelong goal of only reviewing the films he wanted to review, but still had big plans to continue writing and producing a new TV show, and called the upcoming slowdown in activity only a "leave of presence." I retweeted Roger’s update, saying that it was a mixture of sad and exciting news. From his site:
"At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness."
It's fitting, then, that the last movie Roger Ebert reviewed did just that. Two days after his death, Ebert's review of Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" was published. Not only does it show that he was still writing at the top of his game when he was so inspired, but the film's themes of spiritual longing and romantic loss are ripe for Ebert's personal reflection.
And as a champion of movies that challenge the art form and "reach beneath the surface," here he is at 70, defending Malick's right to make narratively obtuse work because he dares to "reach more deeply."
"Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision," Ebert writes. "'Well,' I asked myself, 'why not?' Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?"
He couldn't have planned to write a better essay on why the movies matter.