05 April 2013

Following Roger Ebert’s passing yesterday, I’ve been reading some of his old movie reviews that people have posted. 

What struck me is that he was an absolute scholar in terms of his movie knowledge, but he wrote like he was just one of us: someone who had paid for his ticket (though he didn’t) and sometimes wanted to be entertained and, at other times, informed, but always moved.

The reviews many people have gravitated toward as they look back over his life are for the movies he hated and, I have to admit, there’s a certain joy in reading just how exercised he got over films that fell so far short of his expectations. The one that seems to evoke the most ire is “North,” of which he wrote: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it,” he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times.  How do we think he really felt? 

But when he loved something, his passion was equally spine-tingling because he knew a great movie was something much more than just celluloid. It was magic with the power to change the world or the ability to say something new about the human condition.  Of basketball film, “Hoop Dreams,” he wrote, “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.”  Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” was another favorite: “The film is a virtuoso act of creation, a movie at once realistic and symbolic, lighthearted and tragic, funny, and savage.” 

People respected him for his reviews, but they fell in love with him after he was diagnosed with cancer. Disfigured from the surgery and unable to speak or eat, he carried on with a seemingly indomitable spirit and with a dignity, humor and grace that most of us can only wish we possessed.  

Following Ebert’s death yesterday, Salon reprinted an essay the website ran in 2011 from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir.” He wrote about his own death with the same beautiful simplicity and unsentimental poignancy that he wrote about movies. 

This paragraph about kindness stuck with me: “ ‘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.”

How fortunate, as he states, that Ebert “lived long enough to figure it out.” May we all be so lucky.

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