The last email I received from Roger Ebert was a brief note three years ago, after I had written about his remarkable courage and candour in revealing to the world the effects of surgery on his jaw, following a cancer operation. I had also included his 1988 book Two Weeks In The Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook in my top 10 list of books about the Cannes festival – it’s a tremendously engaging and readable memoir about Cannes and the south Of France; incidentally, it includes Ebert’s own line drawings. “I hope Chaz and I run into you at Cannes in May,” he wrote – Chaz of course being his wife, and the absolute bedrock of his personal and professional life. Sadly I never did get to see him, or rather I saw him only from afar, in the Cannes Palais, surrounded as he always was by a gaggle of friends and admirers.
It sounds desperately naïve, but Ebert’s death is a terrible shock. He had seemed so indomitable, and his formidable web presence – as well as reviewing for print and online, he had become a grandmaster of tweeting – had made it look almost as if nothing was amiss. He had, as I put it at the time, digitally refabricated his presence as a critic: Ebert was once a TV star as well as a syndicated critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and was nettled when the review show he once co-hosted with Gene Siskel was canned. But then he grasped the opportunities of a new medium, and reminded us all that he was a writer and journalist as well as a broadcaster. The internet had given him a new lease of life, and his archived reviews invariably came top of the list in each entry on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which made him and his memory of the movies pretty well a global resource.
He revealed this week that the recurrence of cancer only meant that he was going to take a “leave of presence” – indicating a lighter workload, with some reviews delegated to other writers, but with a whole new raft of ideas about digital platforms for criticism. His online Journal was of course a vivid flow of personal impressions and ideas, including his essay How I Am A Roman Catholic:
”I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.”
This was the Ebert “presence” we had grown used to: endlessly insightful and stimulating.
Roger Ebert sure didn’t fade away. He remained a tough, shrewd, hugely intelligent critic whose authority just grew and grew. Ebert had the sensibilities of a cinephile, but the essential gifts of a popular journalist who knew how to make a connection with his readers.
Here is Ebert on zombie films: “I am fascinated by Darwin’s theory of evolution as it applies to zombies. Since Richard Dawkins teaches us that the only concern of a selfish gene is to survive until the next generation of the organism that carries it, what are the prospects of zombie genes, which can presumably be transmitted only by the dead? And how do zombies reproduce, or spread? Why must they eat flesh? Why not a whole foods diet of fruits, vegetables and grains? Maybe a little fish. I know this has nothing to do with film criticism. I am blown along by the winds of my own zeal. If a good vampire or zombie movie comes along, I do my best to play fair with it …”
I loved that kind of guitar solo from Ebert. It incidentally came from his collection of thumbs-down reviews, entitled: A Horrible Experience Of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck – a great title and a great phrase. As a fellow reviewer, I was jealous of him for having thought of it, and you can’t say fairer than that.
Here, on the other hand, is a passage from his laudatory review of Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus, about Nelson Mandela’s bold and inspirational plan, as president of South Africa, to get behind the white Springbok rugby team and its captain, Francois Pienaar, and to signal to both the whites and the ANC that racial harmony and forgiveness was now the order of the day:
”It is a very good film. It has moments evoking great emotion, as when the black and white members of the presidential security detail (hard-line ANC activists and Afrikaner cops) agree with excruciating difficulty to serve together. And when Damon’s character – Francois Pienaar, as the team captain – is shown the cell where Mandela was held for those long years on Robben Island. My wife, Chaz, and I were taken to the island early one morning by Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners, and yes, the movie shows his very cell, with the thin blankets on the floor.”
Now maybe there’s a film reviewers’ rule book somewhere saying that personal stuff like that is subjective, irrelevant, inadmissible. And for what it’s worth I couldn’t share Roger Ebert’s liking for this particular film. But I loved Ebert for his openness, his forthright personal approach, and for the unadorned simplicity of his writing.
What remains is a brilliant archive of movie journalism and movie appreciation, as well as his personal Ebert film festival – which we must all hope will continue under Chaz’s direction. And there is also the documentary about Ebert’s life and work which is being developed by Steve James, Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese. I’m afraid it will have a very sad ending.