The Unfinished: Thinking about Roger Ebert

There will be many obituaries written for Roger Ebert, but this one, by Dana Stevens at Slate, will almost certainly be one of the better ones.

Unlike Dana Stevens, I was not someone whose life was particularly touched by Roger Ebert. I was born about the time his show with Gene Siskel went on the air, and for me they were both always just there; I never had any particular occasion to think about how what they were doing might have been different or innovative. I am also still not someone who reads a lot of film criticism. All this is by way of saying that I am, absolutely, one of those people who never thought a whole lot about Roger Ebert until he got cancer and became such a remarkable presence online. And there’s a way in which that is quite unfair, to reduce somebody with such a long and interesting career to “the guy who got cancer but still wrote a lot.” So writing about his death does feel a little weird for me; it seems like something that should be reserved for those who had a longer engagement of some kind with who he was and what he did.

But. The thing that has been on my mind is not so much Ebert’s life as the way he dealt with death. Lots of people are talking about that as well, and many of them will talk about how he was “brave.” Ebert himself dismissed that idea, saying “that bravery and courage ‘have little to do with it.'”

“You play the cards you’re dealt,” Ebert wrote. “What’s your choice? I have no pain, I enjoy life, and why should I complain?”

That seems like a pretty admirable sentiment, as does the following, from a 2010 piece for Salon that has also been making the rounds in the last couple of days:

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

I don’t know of a better, concise statement of how to be in the world.

But what I’ve really been thinking about is his final blog post. I read it post a couple of days after it went up— which means, as it turned out, that I read it the morning of the day he died. That did make it even sadder when I heard the news of his death, but at the same time it made what he wrote there even more striking and, perhaps counterintuitively, inspiring as well. In that post, Ebert announced that, because his cancer had returned, we was taking a “leave of presence” from his main job as film critic for the Chicago Sun Times.

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved Rogerebert.com and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year.

Ebertfest, my annual film festival, celebrating its 15th year, will continue at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater and home town, April 17-21. In response to your repeated requests to bring back the TV show “At the Movies,” I am launching a fundraising campaign via Kickstarter in the next couple of weeks. And gamers beware, I am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. Once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.

And I continue to cooperate with the talented filmmaker Steve James on the bio-documentary he, Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese are making about my life. I am humbled that anyone would even think to do it, but I am also grateful.

So, in other words: “it turns out I have cancer again, but hey, that will give the time to catch up on some stuff I’ve been wanting to get done.”

My first thought when I heard that he had died was that it’s terrifically sad that none of that will get done— or, at least, that he won’t be the one to do it. But upon (just a little) reflection, I realized that this is something I would want for myself. I want to go out with a to-do list a mile long— and I mean a list of big things, daunting things, things that would challenge me and push me to learn things and do things I had not done before. I say this because I want to be the kind of person who, no matter how old I am or what is going on with my life, will be continuing to push against the boundaries of my self. Roger Ebert alive right up until the moment when he wasn’t any more. That seems like the right way to do it.

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