My world became that little bit greyer last week, when I heard that one of my heroes, the illustrious and whimsical film critic Roger Ebert, had died. Ebert, an American national icon, was the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for over 40 years and was the first film reviewer to win a Pulitzer. He taught me how to understand movies... and much of life.
During Roger Ebert’s 40 years with the Chicago Sun-Times his erudite and seductively breezy style won literally millions of readers over, and he became the most syndicated reviewer in the world, appearing weekly in over 200 newspapers throughout America, Europe and the Far East, as well as on his television show, his website, and his Ebert Club, where film appreciation reached new heights. He was able to reach out to modern generations through this work with fellow critic Gene Siskel, where new releases were quite literally made or broken by whether the films received “Two Thumbs Up!” from the two of them or not. Ebert was such a cultural institution, that it seemed everyone read him– even the American president , who was moved to say last week that “for a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive – capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”
While his reputation was paramount in America and Europe, he did not command as large a following in South Africa – where at first glance his influence may not have seemed to have been as widespread. But actually if you are a lover of movies, as I am, then regardless of where you are in the world, Ebert would very likely have influenced your thinking, whether you were conscious of it or not.
The making of movies is often a sensitive, thought-provoking process – a labour of love. It requires not only dedication and passion, but also a desire to reach out to others. My theory is that it comes out of a need to reinforce a common humanity, for why else would a group of artists come together for so long to make something for others to watch and to enjoy, if not out of a desire to touch and be one with them, even for a short few moments? And like the craft of making movies, the craft of watching them, as Roger Ebert taught us, involves an equally stimulating pattern. For decades, this singular man showed us not just how to watch films, but how to appreciate and be invigorated by them as well. At its most elevated, the act of watching films can take on spiritual qualities. For two hours or so, we transcend ourselves to become voyeurs in the dreams or nightmares of others. We are able to live directly through the eyes of Scorsese or Hitchcock. We are infused with the characteristics of majesty, or bravery, or cowardice, depending on what movies we decide to partake in. All human frailty and nobility are on offer for us to choose from. We are able to comprehend a world outside our own.
But to be able to transcend, to be worthy of such munificence, our watching requires a heightened sense and not a passive attitude. With Ebert by my side as a kind of Jedi knight, unobtrusively feeding me pointers through his articles to help me make sense of it all, the act of watching movies became a sensational and joyous experience. As he wrote: “If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the movie may be.”
Thus, Blade Runner, despite its cult science-fiction status, is not so much a sci-fi thriller, nor even a pervasive view of the future, as I initially thought, but an ageless meditation on what it means to be human. Woody Allen’s ever popular romantic comedy Manhattan had less to do with love and rather more to do with loss. The poignancy of Dead Poet’s Society derives not so much from its depiction of hope, but from its depiction of fear and hesitation. A generation of fans keep going back to When Harry Met Sally not only because of its hilarious fake orgasm scene in the restaurant, but also because its form is actually “as old as the movies but with dialogue as new as this month’s issue of Vanity Fair”. The greatness of Million Dollar Baby isn’t that it’s the greatest boxing movie ever made, it’s actually “about a woman determined to make something of herself, and a man who doesn’t want to do anything for this woman, and will finally do everything.” Even Amadeus can be seen from a different perspective: while it can be seen as a musical biography of a great but doomed composer (Mozart), Ebert gently prods you to consider that it is actually a film about someone completely through the jaundiced eyes of another, a rare feat in moviemaking. I remember how mesmerised I was when I read a single sentence in which he was able to distil Amadeus, by quoting Gore Vidal, to: “When my friends do well, a small part of me dies.”
So the legacy of Roger Ebert was to help so many of us think more deeply about film, and to realise that it can be a high art form on par with the greatest literature or artwork. If he had done just this, he would have justified his place in film-lovers’ memories. But, in the last decade of his life, he went even beyond this. In 2002, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, which ravaged his thyroid, salivary glands and chin. He eventually lost the entire chin, and with it the ability to eat, drink and speak. Such extreme obstacles most usually foreshadow a downhill, painful path to death. For Ebert, it became a catalyst to become even more thoughtful and prolific in output. Shorn of almost all ability to function, he persevered. The modern miracle of a prosthetic lower jaw was grafted on to his face, he sipped foods which had been put through a blender and reinvented himself on social media. Robbed of his ability to speak, he spoke through his blogs and through Twitter. Just before his death, over 800,000 users subscribed to his broad array of discussion points which went well beyond movies to discussions on evolution (“that most consoling of the sciences”), to intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality… and above all, death.
In Life Itself, published in 2011, he describes at some length the process of making peace with himself as death draws nearer: “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. That is the nature of things. I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
I loved movies even before I was introduced to the work of Pauline Kael, or Kenneth Tynam, or Richard Shickel, all notable film critics who’ve made major contributions to film appreciation. But I feel that it was only through Roger Ebert that the scales were lifted from my eyes to be able to understand movies – and following from that, to understand much of life.
Before his death, Ebert spoke of finding some degree of satisfaction in Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes; that is, the mental units of thoughts, ideas, songs, sayings and teachings that move from mind to mind in the same way that genes move from body to body. In taking satisfaction that he would live on through these mental units, Roger Ebert was surely right. DM
Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle