Roger & Me: Thoughts On The Passing Of Roger Ebert, A Damn Brilliant American Institution

When I heard, I cried. Right away, I cried, without even fully understanding what I was crying for.

Apr 5, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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Roger Ebert with Russ Meyer in 1970. Tell me this picture isn't ten thousand flavors of awesome.

 
My brushes with fame have been few. For years, the biggest celebrity experience I’d had was when I was working in a convenience store in Boston, and Phylicia Rashad came in a few times (it turned out she was starring in a play at a nearby theater).
 
Being a dumb kid, on her second visit I shyly said, “Thank you, Mrs. Huxtable,” when I returned her change, and thank heaven she had the grace to smile indulgently at the presumptuous college student who grew up watching her on TV, because I can still remember her with no small degree of reverence and awe today.
 
Another of my favorite celebrity encounters was with Roger Ebert, a few years ago, and it took place exclusively online. But it still stuck with me all this time, and when I heard about his passing yesterday after a long and valiant battle with cancer, I surprised myself by bursting into tears on the spot.
 
I grew up watching Ebert alongside Gene Siskel on the long-running film-review TV series “At the Movies,” although I can’t genuinely say I decided to study film in college because of him, as many people can. I wanted to MAKE films, not criticize them, and to some extent I imagined critics like Ebert to be The Enemy of my pure creative efforts. Oh I would watch the show, but only to roll my eyes and sigh heavily at the wrongness of it.
 
I was an idiot, but in my defense I was 18 years old.
 
Ebert was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. In 2006, the cancer returned, requiring the removal of part of his jawbone, and after the surgery his carotid artery burst, putting him very near death. During his recovery Ebert underwent a tracheotomy, which cost him the use of his voice, and his ability to eat and drink -- for the rest of his life he would receive liquid sustenance via a feeding tube.
 
He worked throughout his treatment. Being a man of words, it wasn’t long before Ebert discovered the social potential of the Internet, and when he joined Twitter in 2009, he rapidly became one of the most respected and popular users. 
 
But he also wrote more personal pieces, about his experience of illness. Ebert had always been a brilliant writer -- he was, after all, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize -- but his more personal work was remarkable and moving even above and beyond that. He wrote about re-learning to speak by finding a new voice, and memorably, about what there is to miss of the experience of eating and tasting food.
 
And on his 20th wedding anniversary, he shared such a complete accounting of his love for his wife that I challenge you to read it and not tear up just a little bit.
 
It was a few years ago that I crossed Internet paths with Roger Ebert, whom I had, in adulthood, come to regard as a writerly role model. He had written a review of a movie with Queen Latifah in it, and in the review had drawn a careful difference between “fat” women and “plus size” women -- Latifah was “plus size,” because she dresses well and carries herself with confidence, and ostensibly fat people don’t do these things.
 
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I called out this troubling distinction on my personal blog at the time, accusing Ebert of moving the goalposts without actually identifying why it’s a problem that women -- “fat” or “plus size” or whatever -- still get appraised by these standards, and that complimenting some women while condemning others was no solution. I never expected it to go anywhere. It was just the kind of analysis of pop culture that I did (and do).
 
The shocking part happened when Ebert tweeted about my post, and then emailed me directly to assure me he had meant well, and to compliment and thank me for my “thoughtful and honest” writing. ROGER EBERT WAS THANKING ME. FOR CRITICIZING HIM. Sure, his tweet came with an avalanche of enraged reactions from numerous Ebert fans tearing me to shreds for daring to publicly disagree with him, but I was riding too high to let that get me down. ROGER EBERT EMAILED ME. It was impossible to believe. I was overwhelmed.
 
It takes a staggering amount of class to accept criticism so gracefully, so openly, even to welcome it; it is much easier to be defensive, and it would have been extraordinarily easy for Ebert to ignore my poor scribblings and carry on being a legend. But he didn’t. He read what I wrote, and thought about it, and took time to write me an email to let me know. That he took the time to do so meant everything to me; it remains one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.
 
And I’m not the only one -- he did this with lots of small-time bloggers. In an editor email chain on this subject, Daisy shared the following:
One of the best moments of my life was when Roger Ebert linked to my personal blog on his Twitter. I know that's a humble brag (without the humble), but to have someone I admired and respected so much to find my writing worth linking to... It was the first real validation I felt that maybe I was doing something right.
 
I'm so sad he died. He was such an American institution and loved by so many. And the way he handled himself in the face of so many hardships... I can't imagine anyone doing it with more grace, dignity, humor, and style.
 
I'm about to cry, so I'll stop.
That was the kind of impact Roger Ebert had on the people who admired him.
 
Criticism is not an easy thing. Well, to be clear: well-written, thoughtful, effective criticism is not an easy thing. It's pretty rare. As a self-absorbed 18-year-old ARTIST I thought critics criticized because they lacked the genius to create. But criticism is creative, and good criticism is at least as difficult to create as the things it criticizes -- I know this now, because I’ve long since become a cultural critic of sorts myself. Good criticism is not a thing you see often, and I include my own work amongst that which falls short.
 
But a critic who can also accept criticism? Even rarer.
 
Roger Ebert changed me that day, as ever since, I have remembered our brief interaction and have sought to emulate his response to others’ criticism in my own life. It is because of Roger Ebert that I try to engage respectfully and thoughtfully even with people who are telling me I am utterly full of shit.
 
Because you know what? Sometimes they have a point. Sometimes there is an angle or a perspective or an experience I didn’t consider, and that’s okay, I just need to learn from it. I don’t need to be right all the time. How boring would that be.
 
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With his wife Chaz Hammel-Smith, left, and Nancy Kwan at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 2010. (Photo credit: Chuck Boller for the Hawaii International Film Festival)

 
Roger Ebert died yesterday, April 4, 2013, while receiving treatment for more cancer, a day after writing a blog post in which he talks about his need to take “a leave of presence” from his work, but detailing future projects he planned to be working on. He is survived by his wife, Chaz Hammel-Smith, and a world of grateful readers and fans.
 
He closed his now final piece of writing with, “I’ll see you at the movies,” in deference to the art form to which he’d dedicated most of his life. As last words, they are fitting.
 
In a piece Ebert wrote in 2009 about facing death, specifically facing death without the solace of religion to lean on, he says:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
 
[...] To explain myself, I turn to Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
So do we all. How sad if our freedom to think about the immensity of time and space could be defined by what someone informs us that we believe.
Rest easy, Roger Ebert. And thanks for every word.