Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and lover of stories Roger Ebert died Thursday, goddammit.
Here’s the obit from the Chicago Sun-Times, where Ebert worked for 46 years: “Roger Ebert dead at 70 after battle with cancer.”
And here’s the obit from the Chicago Tribune, with which Ebert competed for 46 years: “Roger Ebert: A film critic with the soul of a poet.”
The first line of Neil Steinberg’s Sun-Times piece says the main thing to be said: “Roger Ebert loved movies.” That love was palpable and contagious. Bill Wolff expresses this well in a post on the Maddow Blog:
Roger Ebert was both a critic and an enthusiast. In his writing and his speaking about movies, his optimism about movies always shone through. He was rooting for movies to be good, and he was looking for things to like about them without ever overlooking their flaws. There was joy and love in his work, not just for the work itself but for the subject of his critique. And that was a wonderful thing.
He never felt the need to denigrate work in order to prove that he knew something we did not. However large his ego was or was not, Roger Ebert never let it get in the way of expressing his love for the movies, and he never allowed cynicism to encroach on his work or self-expression. That is something to consider for anyone who does anything. Unapologetic joy is a wondrous thing.
He was passionate about film — not just knowledgeable about films and directors and actors, but in love with the form, in a way that came through in every review. Even when a movie was bad, you could tell that at least part of the reason Ebert was annoyed was because the film failed its medium, which could achieve amazing things. But as passionate as he was about film, he wasn’t precious about it. Ebert loved film, but what I think he loved most of all was the fact that it entertained him so. He loved being entertained, and he loved telling people, in language which was direct and to the point (he worked for the Sun-Times, the blue collar paper in town) what about the films was so entertaining. What he taught me about film criticism is that film criticism isn’t about showing off what you know about film, it was about sharing what made you love film.
Good advice there, in those remembrances. Sharing what we love is more compelling than sharing what we know. The more we love anything, of course, the more we will want and need to learn about it. So those two things are not exclusive. But Scalzi’s observation — don’t show off what you know, share what you love — seems to apply to much more than just film criticism.
That’s why Ebert’s blog was compelling reading even when he strayed far from the subject of movies to write about, for example, what makes great bars great. The most recent two posts on his blog just now are the announcement of his passing by his beloved wife, Chaz, and an elegaic announcement of his planned “Leave of Presence” to cope with his worsening illness. Written just two days before his death, that post ends with this: “Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Ebert’s long illness — the cancer that took away part of his jaw and his ability to speak in 2006 — prompted some wise, candid discussion of, as he wrote: “God, the afterlife, religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death.” And again, what made this compelling was his enthusiastic love for the subject — he loved life so much that his thoughts about “death, death, death” were always worth reading.
That quote above is from his recent book, Life Itself: A Memoir. Salon has an excerpt from that memoir, an essay titled “I do not fear death.” You should read the whole thing. Here’s a bit I particularly liked:
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.
• Stefan at Wonkette recalls Ebert’s “strong and brave moral constitution,” citing his 1971 review of Dirty Harry as an example.
• Roger Ebert’s TED “Talk” on losing his voice.
• NBC News’ Gael Fashingbauer Cooper has a nice collection of some of the better lines from Ebert’s reviews.
• Cathleen Falsani discusses some of Ebert’s other thoughts on “God, the afterlife, religion,” etc.
• John Cole says go watch a good movie and enjoy it. Good advice.