The beloved Chicago film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70 after struggling with cancer for over a decade. He was a lovely man (according to my nephew, who met him) and an astute critic. The announcement at the Chicago Tribune (though Ebert worked for the Sun-Times) includes this:
Prolific almost to the point of disbelief — the Weekend section of the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine on some days — Ebert was arguably the most powerful movie critic in the history of that art form. He was also the author of 15 books, a contributor to various magazines, author of the liveliest of bloggers and an inspiring teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago.
. . . . His reviews, from the start and ever since, were at once artful and accessible. In 1975 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first such criticism prize to be awarded for film criticism by the Pulitzers.
Damn! I didn’t know he taught a course here, and I never saw him lecture, though I did see him interview Woody Allen live onstage at a premiere of “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” at the Univerity of Chicago student moviehouse. It is a small venue and I was immensely privileged to see these two smart and funny guys have a relaxed conversation just a few rows away.
I’m not sure about the “most powerful” thing—Pauline Kael could certainly give him a run for the money—but he was hugely influential. His television show “Sneak Previews” with Gene Siskel (who also died of cancer, in 1999 at the age of 53) introduced many Americans to good movies, and I rarely missed it.
Ebert’s website appears to be down, perhaps clogged by traffic from his many admirers. (It’s up again, but not responding quickly.) He announced on April 2 that his cancer had recurred—it was discovered after a hip fracture—and it was a shock to hear of his death only two days later. Ebert was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and then underwent several operations as the cancer spread, eventually resulting in the loss of part of his jaw as well as his abilities to speak and eat. He was foodless and speechless for many years, but bore it bravely, even publishing a cookbook (he did the cooking, his wife Chaz the eating). After his cancer diagnosis Ebert seemed to rate movies more highly, almost as if his sense of mortality had made him more charitable.
I also admired him for his love of food and, especially, his touting of the awesome Steak ‘n Shake fast-food restaurants in the Midwest, which are wonderful. He was a Midwestern boy and never forgot the food of his youth. His blog appears to be down, but you can read an excerpt here:
The resulting Steakburger is a symphony of taste and texture. [...] It is essential that the sandwich is Served On a Toasted Bun. If you order onion, it will be a perfect thin slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side. Mustard, relish, tomato, lettuce can also be added, but tomatoes are a distraction. When you bite into the Steakburger, you want it to be gloriously al dente all the way through: toasted bun, crispy patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.
His taste in movies was just as good. My touchstone for movie critics is how they handle my two favorite films, Ikiru and The Last Picture Show, and Ebert put both of them on his list of Great Movies.
Ebert was a semi-vociferous atheist, and showed it a bit in a wonderful profile in Esquire (do read it):
Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.
I believe that if, at the end of it all, 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.
He certainly made many of us a little happier, and I’ll miss him. Two thumbs up for his life and work.