In absolute terms, even in relative terms, I’m not what you’d call a film buff. My knowledge of cinema contains huge gaps, and when I was a kid I actively disliked films. My mind would wander over the course of two hours, which seemed to an impatient child such a huge chunk of time to commit to anything, let alone watching something that might turn out not to be any good. When my mum or dad announced that they were going to the video shop (remember independent video rental shops?) to get something to watch that evening, it didn’t excite me. Sometimes I kind of resented it. I had other interests. And so, having come to appreciate movies only in my later teens, and being British, I didn’t have the pleasure of growing up with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel to educate me about movies.
I wish I had. Ebert had a quality shared by all the best critics: he was fair. As great as his zingers could be, it would be a shame if he were remembered chiefly for his ‘hated, hated, hated’ review of North, his Your Movie Sucks book or his Vincent Gallo retort (after being called a ‘fat pig’ by Gallo, he responded ‘I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny‘) because that was not his real character – his work is never anything less than reasonable in a field that hasn’t often deserved to have had such an uncynical soul as its most famous critic. Indeed he reserved his real scorn only for movies he judged to be cynical in the way they tortured their characters. The artist in me says maybe he was too fastidious, but his line on this issue was consistent and humane, and while I’d defend a film-maker’s right to make such a work as a Human Centipede – and a viewer’s right to see it if they so wish – I’d not argue that humanity is enriched by such movies, and I’d struggle to judge them as art.
In the last few years, Ebert had been through a lot: thyroid cancer, salivary gland cancer, cancer of the jaw and the subsequent removal of part of his jawbone, a burst carotid artery, the loss of his ability to speak and eat, and several painful attempts to rebuild his jaw, which failed and left his appearance permanently altered.
The language of bravery, of heroism – language imported from the battlefield and often inappropriate and ill-informed – is too readily deployed when we speak of illness. Anyone who’s faced serious illness knows that the two biggest factors involved in whether one lives or dies are luck and the skill of one’s doctors. But most of all luck.
And so personally I don’t believe it was courage that saved him. Or even, and I don’t say this lightly, love. There are so many other variables; it only takes your surgeon having a slight off-day for some reason, and everything can be different. Nevertheless, Roger Ebert’s reaction to his survival, his continued commitment to his work (and what a workload he gave himself!), his decision to go back on camera and show the world his changed face and his synthesised voice, all of that was brave. I wouldn’t have had it in me to do that. He continued to engage with the world, which may not give you any more time, but sure as hell helps to make the time worthwhile, however much or little of it you have.
The sad thing is that he died when he was still making plans for his future. Just two days ago he announced the recurrence of cancer, this time in his hip, but reiterated that he intended to go on working and was just about to relaunch his website. You don’t do that if you’re expecting to die at any day. His death has, then, despite his frailty and his decision not to put himself through more surgery, come as something of a shock. You almost expected him to keep going for a good while yet, with the support of his wife Chaz and his always-evident love of film to help him on the bad days.
I have to admit, I find myself more and more saddened by death nowadays. It’s a selfish reaction perhaps, but hearing or thinking about it does lead me back to the place I was in fifteen months ago when I learned my heart had failed. I don’t know why my condition didn’t kill me, as it does so many others. I don’t know why my condition improved, instead of continuing to decline. It couldn’t have declined much further; I do know that. I know I was lucky and had great doctors. I live a basically normal life now, and didn’t need to find within myself the bravery of a Roger Ebert to face the world after surviving a serious illness. Cancer took so much away from him, yet he continued to give us all so much. He was a great writer and, for all his prominence, probably an under-rated critic; he was so good at telling you why he liked what he liked, a task that kicks my arse every time I sit down to write something for this blog but is sometimes not fully appreciated by those who haven’t tried it. Above all else, though, when faced with continual physical suffering, he refused to let it make him bitter. If anything, his latter reviews became even more marked by open-heartedness and generosity of spirit.
It’s been quoted a lot already, and will doubtless be quoted even more in the next few days, but let’s give the last word to Roger:
“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.
Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
Roger Ebert, from his Twitter account
N.B. I’ve removed the reference to the review of the Evil Dead remake that appeared on Ebert’s website as it was actually written by Richard Roeper. My apologies for the mistake.