Yet the memory of Roger Ebert that sticks closest to me has nothing do with his long, illustrious career as a film critic. It came instead when he emerged in the wake of the surgery that removed his lower jaw, refusing to hide away from recoils (and worse, pity) and instead appearing in a number of interviews to recount his condition with the same open frankness that defined his film writing.
The interview that made the biggest impact was an appearance on his old friend Oprah Winfrey’s show, where he was accompanied by his wife, Chaz (an astonishing woman who deserves separate accolades I hope are coming her way in all this). At the time, my mind reeled from Ebert’s condition. How could he bear it? The pain? The disfigurement? I was so caught up in my own insecurities that I could not fathom how he found it within himself to go on.
Then, I watched that interview. I watched the way life danced in his eyes, utterly unfazed by his situation. I watched how he made the uncomfortable wait inherent in relying upon a computer to speak for him by playfully and earnestly pantomiming his emotions. Most of all, I watched the way he put so much love into the way he squeezed his wife’s hand that even if he still had the power of speech, he could not have spoken more eloquently of his feelings for her than he did in that gesture. I realized then that this was not a man who, in my perception, had lost so much. He was a man who had everything, not one but two loves of his life, neither of whom left his side for a second. His increased connection to the Internet would later bear this out more vividly, but in that one moment I saw someone who had only gained reasons to live and would not give up on them until the very end. And he never did.
I have often been frustrated with Ebert, and at times I have viewed him as an influence to overcome. But it is always in the way children look to step outside their parents’ shadow, more an indirect display of respect and admiration than a true rejection. Even as I seek out rarer and more complex films and film writing, it is Ebert’s capacity for concise but profound observations I strive to emulate in writing about them, the way he could, at his best, distill an entire film into a sentence of precise but evocative thought. Yet it is that interview that truly motivates me at my lowest. I often wrestle with self-doubt, wondering if I will ever distinguish myself as a writer, whether to even bother to keep going when so many of my peers have a way with analysis and language that seems so far beyond my grasp. At those times I think of the fire and joy in Ebert’s eyes, the dedication to life and work not for money or prestige or Pulitzers, but for the simple, affirming act of experiencing movies and talking about them, of continuing and sometimes even beginning conversation of film that could approach it intellectually without sacrificing the ineffable awe of moviegoing. Roger proved that the critic’s drive to discuss, contextualize and, above all, share, is more than an occupation. It is a way of being in the world.