As the keyword "film" on this blog will reveal, I have always been in love with the movies. From Saturday matinee afternoons as a child and throughout my adulthood, movies have fascinated me, bored me, inspired me, taught me, disappointed me, made me want more, and made me want my money back. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, and such is my experience with film making that I consider myself to have a relationship with movies.
By extension, movie critics are of interest to me. None more so than the recently deceased Roger Ebert. I have his book The Great Movies as part of my library. I watched him and long-deceased Gene Siskel banter back and forth about films on At The Movies back in the day. All my friends who have the least interest in films know what “two thumbs-up” means; it means Siskel and Ebert both agreed whatever movie they were discussing was worth seeing.
I did not follow the agonizing decline of Ebert’s health with any regularity or special commitment. I knew his physicians disfigured him trying to save him from cancer. I knew he had been close to death but then recovered. I knew he couldn’t speak anymore but that he was as good a writer as ever. I occasionally read his reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times website.
A couple of days before he died he posted to his blog that he was taking “a leave of presence” – a typically innovative way to say something old in a fresh way. He was that kind of writer. Then he died. Death is not something I fear, nor is it something I take lightly, and it has always amazed me how someone can Be one day and not Be the next.
For all these reasons and others not articulated, I focused more attention on Ebert in the days after his death. My Flipboard and Zite apps were filled with articles on Ebert. I read a really terrific piece he wrote for Salon in 2011 entitled “I do not fear death.” I found it to be poignant and inspiring. Ebert had no religion. He believed in no afterlife. So I have that in common with him. This article validated my own experiences. He did not need the traditional cultural props to address his impending death. He was beyond all that. I hope I am as well.
I found an amazing TED “talk” that he delivered in 2011 as well. It is actually more of a presentation than a talk. He had lost the ability to speak, after all. And yet, if you watch the talk, you might redefine what it is to have a voice and how a voice can be transformed by near-catastrophic challenges.
It is obvious from Ebert’s last decade of life, productive right up to the end, he remained an optimist. He was “thumbs-up” about living, he was a master of Thumbs-Up Being. His eyes remained bright; his writing passionate and fairly prolific. His mind found creative ways to express itself in written form and he remained engaged with art and living and loving. I would say he had a smile on his face but he really didn’t. He could not close his mouth because, among other complications, he had lost his jawbone. But his teeth were white and attractive and, even though he could not form a smile with his mouth, he certainly emitted one with his eyes and his written words.
His final review was published a day or so after his death. His passing was that close to his criticism and creativity. It was about a Terrence Malick film, To The Wonder which I am unlikely to see until it comes out on Blu-ray due to it being only in limited release. I have no “select theaters” near me. That takes a drive into Atlanta I probably won’t make. But, you never know.To The Wonder is apparently a continuation of Malick’s brilliant minimalist style, heavy on emotional effect and light on narrative or rational understanding. Ebert acknowledges as much in his review and he is OK with it. He gave the film 3 and a half stars. And then he died. The review’s final paragraph reads: “There will be many who find 'To the Wonder' elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
Watching Ebert’s TED talk touched my soul – and that made me wonder. Are such moments merely guiding paths to self-discovery of emotional aspects of my own Being? By touching me so do they introduce me to myself? Am I better acquainted with who I am and what I need and appreciate because of human beings like Roger Ebert who connect with me through words about the art of film and the art of living? I think so. And that is to the wonder of my Being. So, the next time I feel discouraged or unfulfilled or aimless I will think of my moments with Roger Ebert and dozens of other masters like him; and I will try to connect to the magic, the courage, and the discipline it takes to give life and even death a big Thumbs-Up.