I found out while texting a friend. A CNN news blurb popped up before I could send it. There was a sizable sentence, but the only words that mattered were “Roger Ebert” and “died” or “passed away” or whatever euphemism they went with. For a moment, I was numb inside. I had not expected this.
Roger Ebert is going to the movies.
But I did expect it. In some weird way, I knew. This morning I went for a walk and thought about all the artists that had passed away in the last few years and how inevitably more would follow. Everybody grieves celebrity death. They tweet “RIP” and post melancholy status updates. Some of them even loved these people as human beings. Who knows? I thought about when the next public figure would pass away and affect me with just some of that same grief I’d feel at the death of a loved one. In my ignorance, I thought of Bill Murray. It was a fleeting thought. Very morbid. I thought what if he died today. What would I feel?
Roger Ebert won’t be sitting through the credits.
I don’t know how I’d feel. Bill Murray is still alive. Roger Ebert isn’t. I feel his death and I feel the space where he should be in the world. It is empty now. His voice is still ringing in my ears but nobody is talking.
Roger Ebert’s film reel has run out.
I got an answer to my question. And I am still null inside.
Ask any person on the street which film critics they know by name and they will say “Roger Ebert” or “Siskel & Ebert,” and I bet you these will be their first if not only choices. Roger Ebert spent four decades building his image with the same care as the auteurs he studied and appraised. He was still building at the time of his death. In a blog post entitled “Leave of Presence,” written on April 2, Ebert spoke like a man who intended to live forever. “What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away.” Despite a relapse in cancer, despite his age and the need to “slow down,” Ebert described new plans for his film festival Ebertfest, a renovated version of his website Rogerebert.com, a Kickstarter campaign to bring back the TV series ”At the Movies,” a documentary film, a video game/mobile app, and a fourth book in his ”Great Movies” series. He wished to write more about his fight against sickness. “So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”
“Vulnerability” is not a word I associate with Ebert. He was ambitious, but he was always dignified. He maneuvered the jumps from print to TV to online media and still, at age 70, kept searching for new ways to connect with audiences. He held his readers in high esteem. Their trust mattered more to him than their worship.
And there was his love for film. No. It wasn’t that simple. There was his love for art. For the human capacity to breathe beauty into people’s lives.
Ebert was not the first to treat films reverently, but he introduced the notion to a public unfamiliar with Pauline Kael, German Expressionism and “Cahiers du cinema.” He expanded the definition of what a film could achieve and how we, the viewer, could talk about this achievement as more than just our popcorn’s worth. Before I came to see cinema as my salvation, Ebert’s reviews — lyrical, ponderous, sometimes contentious but always thought-provoking — taught me to value the conversation about film as much as the film itself. It’s through this conversation that films can change lives, affect politics and expand our worldview beyond our skulls. It’s through this conversation that we meet each other on equal footing. Nobody knew this better than Ebert and his sparring partner Gene Siskel. They are back together now, their voices joined as memories coloring our words whenever we attempt to talk about film as they did: not as a hobby, but our lifeblood.
I look online and Roger Ebert’s presence persists. He is not going away. His Facebook page still shows posts he made up to a week before his passing. On older posts, recent comments mix with ones from when he was still alive, “Rest in peace” on top of “Hey Roger so happy to see you’re reviewing films again. Missed your voice a great deal!” His Twitter feed hasn’t been updated since April 3rd when he linked his “Leave of Presence” article. His presence refuses to leave. His presence lingers like a deceased friend, all their statuses, Tweets, goofy comments and wistful dreams preserved online in spite of cold reality. Ebert’s voice was closer to me than any artist’s voice I knew. Reading them after the fact, my thoughts scream rebellion. He is there. I see him! He spoke to me every day. We’ll still be speaking, through my writing and his example. He’ll still be speaking to every film lover with an ear to the ground and their eyes on the screen. He’ll still be speaking — forever at the movies.
Roger Ebert, “film critic since time immemorial,” is not going away. Film fans have commemorated him with cute references to his “thumbs up/thumbs down” system and his most scathing reviews, but his greatest legacy will be something more intangible. The Onion put it best with their touching half-joke headline: “Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence as a ‘Triumph.’” Film is ultimately a celebration of human life, and Roger Ebert will always be its most avid fan.
I’ll see you at the movies, Roger.
Note: “Forever at the Movies: A Tribute to Roger Ebert” was first published on the Festival of Films blog on April 5, 2013.