I opened up Facebook last Friday to see a link posted overnight from friend in the US about the death of iconic film critic Roger Ebert. What?! This was just the day after I read Ebert’s blog post about how he was shifting his attentions away from film reviewing as frequently to attending to his film festival, a new website and other things. He’d been ill for a long time with cancer, but his presence was large with his unflagging reviewing and his prolific tweeting (and Twitter is now running over with tributes to him). His writing wasn’t as large a part of my movie consciousness as it was for American cinephiles; growing up in Malaysia and Australia exposed me to different dominant critics. But I now feel somehow like I’ve always known about him.
[Roger Ebert (centre) with (l–r) Terry Zweigoff, Jason Reitman, Errol Morris, and Philip Kaufman at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2010. Photo by Kanaka Menehune on Flickr, Creative Commons]
There’s plenty being written about him, so I just want to mention a few things. Dana Stevens from Slate magazine has an admiring obituary and a memento of a lovely gesture from Ebert: a letter to the teenage Stevens in response to her fan mail. “Go to all the good movies you can, and write-write-write for anyplace that will print your stuff” he tells her.
Ebert being himself sometimes a writer of profiles, it was an interesting moment when Esquire sent writer Chris Jones to interview him. He was by this stage not able to speak, and the interview was conducted with text-to-speech and post-it notes. Chris Jones talks about the interview and the process of writing the profile on the Typecast podcast (the discussion turns to Ebert at about 12 minutes), and Ebert himself wrote about the experience; the mutual respect the two writers have makes for an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what is now an iconic article. Ebert “winced” a little about his photograph in the magazine, but he was ultimately happy with the piece: “That’s all you can really ask: For Chaz [his wife] to be able to read the article and say it was about me.” Chris Jones has written a moving coda to the interview, putting up pictures of some of the post-its that Ebert scribbled on. Two strike me: “There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am. This has led to an explosion of writing.”; and “These things come to us, they don’t come from us. Dreams come from us.”
My experience of Roger Ebert continues into the future. Aside from reading his recent reviews as I work my way through the movies as they get released, his collection Awake in the Dark is a book I acquired over a year ago that has remained in my ‘current’ pile, something to keep dipping into. He writes about Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven as being “truly bottomless; the deeper into it I look, the more humanity and sadness and truth I see, but I never get to the end of its mystery”. This is not just a comment about that film, but an approach to film-watching and to life that Ebert embraced. Chris Jones tells Typecast about Ebert’s books in his home: “…Roger, every book was cracked, he’s a voracious reader, you know, that tells me something about him”. A voracious reader, an energetic writer, a generous soul.