Just a couple of days before Roger Ebert died, when I read of his announcement about taking a “leave of presence,” I felt the tide of grief rising. It was a swell deferred; it began when I read more about him and his illness some years back, and would surge a little with each new visit to his trusty website for a review of some film; I would wonder if the review would be there, whether he was still generating reviews. Miraculously, they all still were, until the one that wasn’t, just a couple of days before his death. Ebert was a touchstone and he leaves a hole of a depth most of us tried not to think about until we had to.
Roger Ebert had more impact than most filmgoers realized. It was quiet and pervasive; it was a reliably balanced view. I haven’t yet heard what revisions to his cosmology his final months, weeks, days might have brought, but he gave the general impression of being a very stable agnostic (maybe atheist), and yet he didn’t offend the sensibilities of many of us with more spiritual, faith-oriented or even superstitious leanings. He was a pragmatist, and, as a reviewer, not inaccessibly intellectual nor superficially sentimental. So, in reading his reviews, I felt an abiding trust; his decency, clarity and candor were a known quantity. I could gauge for myself where and how his reviews would serve me and where we might diverge, as we can gauge such things with anyone we’ve known a long time. This was a great gift.
I felt a support and kinship with him as he announced he was now giving himself permission, in his leave of Presence– in fact a prescience of leave– to review only movies he wanted. Hosannah. What a relief that must have been (yet hinting at his diligence of duty in not having done so long before now)!
I know that one now as a media reviewer, and I know it from way back in film school. I remember one particular evening in 1987ish, after a 12-hour day of working on a peer’s film, when the crew gathered in the director’s living room, bonded and beat, and popped in the movie Robocop. I had no interest in the film; I was there for the human interaction, for the belonging, for a soft spot on a sofa after script-supervising from the hood of a car all day, probably. I wasn’t into violent films. And I was soon cringing with shock, dismay, horror and alienation as the room full of guys was avidly rewinding and frame advancing through the scene where the character gets his limbs shot off. It was about the craft for them; how had that effect been pulled off?! They were numb to the inhumanity portrayed. The only other female in the room was numb with inebriation.
It took me a while to act on the impulse to leave. But leave I did. And that night probably steered me more into film criticism in my remaining college years (away from the technical aspects of film production), and also, though not consciously, into my more feminine, healer side. I didn’t stay in the media production world long; soon I’d stepped off the fast track onto the meandering path of health and spirit.
I was still a film buff, and I probably appreciate film now more than I was capable of doing back then. There have been many years in the interim, though, in which I took both film craft and Roger Ebert for granted.
As I matured and my life took on more spiritual focus, I knew Ebert’s experience couldn’t necessarily follow me there. But there was a meta-consciousness, an analytic perspective, we shared, as maturing human beings and as contemplative writers. And his reviews carried a transmission from his heart and mind that I could recognize, and I could glean from how a film landed and rested in his heart and mind what it might hold for me.
He was a clear vessel for a certain kind of intelligence, lucidity, reason, and I grieve its loss. In my decades of digression from cinema-centric life–I went from seeing a film or two a day to a handful of films per year (in the theater)– I have not been reading many other reviewers, and I don’t know who to trust anymore. We in my generation grew up with Roger Ebert; I feel the void he leaves this morning more acutely than the loss of four other pillars in my life in the past three years, two of them my parents. This is likely because of his impact on the collective, on the culture, not just on my personal history.
Yet, I trust that the new voices of balanced, sane, basically decent and non-sensational reviewing are out there, or are coming, and will fill the void, will honor him and even evolve beyond him.
And speaking of voice, an additional personal musing: He was a voice, but through print for the most part. His voice was somewhat soft, but his clarity spoke with force and focus. I think he came through in print even more effectively for me than in his televised tete a tetes on Sneak Previews. And it’s interesting to me that, after the removal of his jaw, he proved that his Voice did not need his voice. In a way, his heart spoke even clearer once his sound was silenced.
I cannot help but observe a parallel with my father, a PhD’ed linguist who lost the ability to speak long before he passed away. The mind saw cruel irony, but our hearts came to apprehend a greater Grace, imposing the growth of opening to other means of communication and sources of trust than the habituated could allow, that the ability to rely on intellect and voice precluded for him most of his life.
I smile at the thought that a film about Roger Ebert would be pointless. That is no negative commentary. It points to the consummate realization of his professional dharma. The best commentators need no further commentary. His influence is undefinable, his absence, at least for a while, will be aching and stark.