Whenever someone dies, whether friend or relative or celebrity-of-the-week, the first and immediate thought that bubbles to the surface of my brain is, “What movies were they looking forward to that they’ll never get to see?” That this says more about me than the recently departed is a thing of which I am aware.
But with Roger Ebert, the question takes on a serious weight and, for me, a particular dread. Roger Ebert isn’t dead, but he soon will be. He is dying, he will not get better, and there isn’t much time left. He’s been reviewing movies since the ’60s, covering nearly every single film released, both studio and independents, doing dispatches from major world film festivals. And, of course, he was half of the most famous critical duo ever: “Siskel and Ebert.” After Siskel’s death in 1999, Richard Roeper became his partner for “Ebert and Roeper.”
Since I was 16, I’ve had dreams of being in – and later, now, writing and directing – a film he reviewed, concocting hoped-for praises in his review that would validate me in the eyes of my peers and would vindicate me if some other critic didn’t like me. Sort of like, “If Ebert is For Me, Who Can Be Against Me?”
But we can be grateful for what we do have and we can realize just how frighteningly close we came to losing that, too. Chris Johnson’s brilliant, in-depth profile of Ebert for Esquire discloses information many of us didn’t know. A couple years ago, as he was just about to leave the hospital, an artery burst and Ebert began bleeding uncontrollably. The doctors were able to act quickly and save him. But think if he had been at home. Think if he had been unable to get help. He’d have died then, there, without question.
For the better part of the last four years, Ebert has existed almost solely on paper and on the Internet. Rarely appearing in public, unable to speak, you’d think Ebert might retire, recede into private life, focus on his illness, die sometime later, and his paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, would publish a nice, loving editorial about his passing.
No. To do so would be to betray himself. It would mark a worse kind of death. Roger Ebert is a writer, first and foremost. His body is powered by words and thoughts. He is sustained by idea and language. He is fed by film and art. In an age when most people receive and dismiss information at an alarming, horrific pace, Ebert has marked out a cove in the electronic landscape for those who want words to be written with meaning and love. In a time when fewer and fewer people seem to value words, he has made them precious again.
He publishes reviews for nearly every new film released. He continues his column for his “Great Movies” collection. He answers readers’ questions in the “Answer Man” column. And, most uniquely, he has created a venue for an immense personal interaction with his readers in his blog entries. They are vast and numerous and cover all sorts of subjects in and outside of film.
Each and every one of these is a gift. Do you see that? These shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t have them. But we do. They are. He should have been lost when that artery burst, but he wasn’t. How glorious a miracle is that! How wonderful a treat for movie-lovers!
And here is another. There is a company, called CereProc, which specializes in voice-production. They provide comprehensive voices for those who cannot speak. The technology is so good that if a person has had the foresight to record their voice prior to losing it, CereProc can piece together that voice, so that in conjunction with a computer, the voiceless person can type in a sentence, press a button and hear their own voice speak it.
You see where I am going. Ebert has recorded numerous movie commentaries and was the most widely televised film critic in the world for decades. CereProc is now working to re-create Ebert’s voice for him, using all this footage. Ebert himself is going on Oprah Winfrey’s show tomorrow to unveil it. I read on his site just today that it is not quite ready but is better than the robotic-sounding voice he has now. Imagine a robot trying to read Ebert’s reviews. No thank you.
No one knows how long he will have with his own voice again. Maybe he’ll live another five years, maybe he’ll be gone before the end of this one. Life is fragile. I’ve stopped hoping to have a film reviewed by Ebert. That wish seems to take advantage of him and try to bend him to my own purposes. Instead, I just want him to live and to write and, if he can, to speak for as long as possible. He doesn’t even owe us that at this point. He is a treasure, and his words are gifts. And though his presence on this earth is not, his gift is infinite.
. . .
Follow Jason Eaken on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.