I am mourning the death of Roger Ebert, a man who taught me about so much more than movies.
Ebert’s TV shows played an important role in my childhood, from Siskel and Ebert, to Sneak Previews, to Ebert & Roeper, to Ebert’s last television effort, co-produced with his wife Chaz, Ebert Presents: At the Movies. I somehow never felt like I had the final word on a movie until I had looked up Ebert’s review. I found that I agreed with Ebert’s reviews fairly consistently, perhaps more often than any other single reviewer.
Ebert was firm when he disliked a movie, but his overall approach to criticism was joyful and generous. In 1998, Ebert said to his friend and TV partner Gene Siskel:
I also have the greatest respect for you, Gene, but if you have a flaw, it is that you are parsimonious with your enjoyment, parceling it out as if you are afraid you will prematurely expend your lifetime share. [Source: chicagotribune.com]
Ebert took movies on their own terms, rating them for what they were and not for what he thought they should be. In 2006, he confused a lot of other critics, including then co-host Richard Roeper, when he gave a three-star review to Garfield: The Movie. He insisted that although most adults probably wouldn’t enjoy it, most little kids likely would, and they were the film’s intended audience. This approach to film is the appealing alternative to the perspectives we often get from reviewers such as A.O. Scott of the New York Times, a film writer I enjoy but whose opinions I often find stuffy, and even somewhat cynical.
[Since only fairly hard-core Ebert (or movie) buffs would already know this, I want to point out that Ebert had real writing cred, including the screenplay for the 1970’s cult classic film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Though most widely known for his movie reviews, Ebert was, above all, a writer.]
But ultimately, I am not writing this post because of my love for Ebert’s film reviews, his connection to my childhood, or my appreciation for film. I am writing this post because of how he taught me to suffer. Roger Ebert suffered with cancer for eleven years. His cancer journey was long and complicated and I won’t take time to detail it here, but I hope you will read Chris Jones’ excellent piece on Ebert published on Esquire.com on February 16.
I became aware of the extent of Ebert’s struggle with cancer when I first started following his tweets, where he would occasionally tweet out a link to a blog post about a recurrence, a treatment, or a random musing on death and disfigurement in light of his ordeal. I saw a man suffering in ways unimaginable to me, and doing it with charm, hope, and optimism. Even after a burst carotid artery required doctors to dismantle his facial reconstruction surgery, leaving him permanently and horribly disfigured and unable to speak, eat, or drink, Ebert soldiered on. His writing, in fact, became more prolific, more philosophical, and in the last year of his life he published more than in any other year of his more than forty year career.
I was deeply affected by Roger Ebert the mortal, the sufferer, the person who learned after he could no longer eat or drink, to nonetheless drink more deeply of life and love than ever before. I knew years ago that when it came my time to suffer, I wanted to do it Ebert-style.
I learned from Ebert how to put my suffering into writing without adopting a writing voice that conveyed, “Pity me — please feel sorry for me.” I learned how to write frankly, how to be unashamed to write about my disabilities, and how to write humorously about humiliating and painful events. I learned how to write honestly about how damned frustrating suffering can sometimes be. Not that I have ever come close to doing it as well as he did.
Before I began reading Ebert’s writings about his suffering, I had always tried my best to keep my MS under wraps. I would experience a flareup and stay in the house for weeks until the symptoms were gone. After all, I didn’t want to burden others with my sickness, or worry them about their own health, or make them feel awkward around me. And I certainly didn’t want anyone to pity me. But one day when Ebert was criticized for going out in public looking so sick (“shouldn’t you get a prosthetic chin or something?”), he remarked, “This is how I look. Our culture needs to learn how to deal with sick people.” (I will link to this when I am able to find it among thousands of Ebert tributes now flooding the internet.) Roger was right. His problem was having cancer and being disfigured. That’s quite enough for any one person to deal with. How others felt about it was their problem.
I learned a lot about movies from Roger. I learned a lot about pop culture and politics, even theology, from him as well. But this man I never met, along with my grandmother, taught me the most important lesson a person can ever learn in life, which is how to suffer well — in public. And how to write about it in a way that encourages and inspires others. That’s the part of Roger Ebert I will always carry with me.