Friday, April 05, 2013

Somewhere, the Balcony Has Reopened... for a Review of Heaven's Gate -- On the Passing of Roger Ebert

"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, from his autobiography, Life Itself

Since noting the passing of Roger Ebert early Thursday afternoon, I have read (and watched) numerous moving tributes, from President Obama, Martin Scorsese and other celebrities to friends and strangers on Facebook and Twitter.

Several of the tributes have included the above quote, taken from an essay in Roger's acclaimed autobiography, which I have not yet read but just downloaded.

Another Ebert quote that has been prevalently cited is this:

"I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization."

This came from the May 19, 2010 entry in Ebert's prolific online journal, one in which Roger advocated starting a Campaign for Real Movies, devoid of CGI or 3D and not forced into "conformity with commercial formulas."

With apologies to Mr. Ebert and his former television partner, the late Gene Siskel, who not only trademarked the following phrase but for whom it should forever be reserved, I give the above sentiments and Roger's entire life, "Two Big Thumbs Up."

Clearly, I can't write about Roger Ebert with anything close to his own eloquence--even after losing his ability to speak he was named one of America's Top Pundits by Forbes--as he was one of the best writers, about anything, I've ever read.

Having written of my admiration of Ebert at least twice previously on this blog:

A Big 'Thumbs Up' for Roger Ebert (and his new book: The Great Movies III)

Ebertfest: A Beautiful Day "At The Movies" in Mister Roger's Old Neighborhood

...and noting the plethora of adoring tributes about him that adorn nearly every news and current interest website one may visit, I'll keep my tribute to this:

Why the World Will Be a Lesser Place for No Longer Having Roger Ebert In It 

1. His love of movies - Although I believe Roger Ebert always was, and especially in his later years, so much more than a "movie critic," this is the obvious starting point. Between his reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Sneak Previews and At The Movies shows with Gene Siskel and later Richard Roeper, and myriad other appearances and writings, no one championed movies, all movies, like Roger Ebert.

Though my family subscribed to the Chicago Tribune as I was growing up, giving me easier access to Siskel's reviews, I long identified more with Ebert's opinions. In more recent years, he was often the only movie reviewer I read, and I also love his "Great Movies" pieces, which have formed three books, including the one signed at right.

Roger Ebert turned me--and millions of others--onto many movies I likely never would have heard of otherwise. For years he hosted the Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, his alma mater, and in recent years the festival was renamed Ebertfest in his honor. I've been to it twice and intend to return this year. You can find oodles and oodles of Ebert's reviews and other writings at; this is just one review of a 2006 movie called The Fall. If you haven't seen it (the movie), you should.

And per my title of this piece, here is Ebert's review of Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's disastrous follow-up to The Deer Hunter.

2. His humanity - This covers a wide swath and I'm trying to keep things brief. Suffice it to say that within his movie reviews, but more so through his online journal entries and just in how he lived his life, Roger Ebert espoused a lot of beliefs that I endorse. Some may be viewed as explicitly liberal or progressive; I simply saw them as honest, human and fair. Beyond anything that can be construed as political or social commentary, I liked the simple beauty of journal entries like this :

3. His inspiring presence on social media - While many celebrities seem to utilize Facebook and Twitter to essentially promote themselves, I always got the sense that Ebert utilized social media--voraciously--to introduce people to new movies and things he thought others may like. I'll very much miss his "Daily Streamers" posts about movies he recommended on Netflix and other streaming sites, and among many other pearls of wisdom, art and insight, I still recall his posting of this photograph on Facebook.

4. His dignity in dealing with illness, disfigurement and death - As related in greater depth in the story linked above, in 2010 I was waiting in line for Roger to appear at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Skokie for The Great Movies III. I was talking to the person next to me about my regard for Ebert and said that since he had lost his ability to speak (and eat), he had, for me, taken on an almost mystical quality, a la Muhammad Ali.

At which point, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Roger.

I still don't know how much he heard of what I was saying, but I really saw something preternaturally inspiring in how he carried on in the face of grave adversity. The amount of writing he did when others may have just hid out, is mind-boggling.

For more about this, read the outstanding Esquire profile on him from 2010, as well as this essay by Roger--from Life Itself, excerpted on how he didn't fear death.

Around the time of the Esquire article, which included a photograph showing how disfigured his face had become, Ebert valiantly appeared on Oprah, saying (through his computerized voice machine):

"We have to find peace with the way we look and get on with life."

It's a blessing that Roger Ebert was able to do--and share--so much in the three years since then.

Although I now understand that his last journal entry, about taking "A Leave of Presence," was written well in advance of its being posted Tuesday night to commemorate 46 years as the Sun-Times film critic, from what I heard yesterday, he remained his convivial self until the very end.

Though what he wrote will thankfully live on forever on the internet, a medium the erstwhile newspaperman came to cherish, every time a new movie comes out, I'll miss seeing what Roger Ebert thinks of it.

So I'll end this, appropriately, with Roger's own words, from that last journal entry, and reflect the sentiment right back to him:

"Thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

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