A Leave of Presence

Before Life Itself, I knew little about the film critic Roger Ebert. My earliest memories are watching Siskel and Ebert argue about films on Sunday afternoons on a local channel. I did not know Roger Ebert made such an impact on film during his seventy years on earth.

The documentary named after his memoir Life Itself was a riveting watch. They diagnosed Ebert with cancer in 2002. After a botched surgery and cancer relapse in 2005, Ebert lost the ability to speak and walking was a chore. Much of the film focused on the last year of his life.

After the medical setbacks in 2005, instead of complaining and feeling sorry for himself, Ebert went to another medium, blogging. In 2006, Ebert launched a blog and website for what he describes in the film, “for himself.” Ebert hoped to return to film critique on his TV show after another risky surgery. But he never regained the ability to speak. Blogging was his only hope of contributing his voice to the world. Some argue the best writing from Roger Ebert came in these last years of his life.

The website and blog also acted as an archive for Ebert’s forty years of work. Ebert wrote 10,000 film critiques starting in 1967 at the Sun-Times in Chicago. In the documentary, Ebert expressed his desire to write from a young age. But he never wanted to write about films. The job at the Sun fell into his lap in 1967 and Roger parlayed the gig into becoming one of the most beloved film critics of all time.

Life Itself bears witness to a flawed man who took a passion for movies and made a living out of it. Ebert not only watched and critiqued films. He also wrote novels and screenplays. Ebert also helped to revive the careers of Martin Scorsese and giving many filmmakers a shot by highlighting their work in his writing and film festivals like Cannes.

Ebert lived the last eight years of his life in constant pain. He could no longer eat, walk, or speak. Every day they’d suction his throat so Roger could breathe and eat through a tube. But he still did the work. He wrote about social ills like gun control, race, and wrote reviews on hundreds of movies. Roger did the generous things and contributed his gifts to the world despite the health setbacks. His wife said Roger had an inner drive like no one she’d ever met. Nothing would stop him from doing what he loved.

Nothing in the film suggests Robert Ebert was a saint. He had many demons in his early years. In the 80s, he was a heavy drinker and drug user. He also was a womanizer before meeting his wife. But when Ebert met Chaz in the 80s, all of that changed. He married her in 1990 and found the true love of his life.

Roger was an overweight white man, and Chaz was a beautiful black woman with multiple children from a previous marriage. In the film, the Ebert’s talk briefly about the challenges of being an ethnically blended family. Some would suggest Ebert’s openness to all people, his promotion of an eclectic cadre of films, and his concern for social ills were heightened because of Chaz. By marrying a black woman, he now saw the world through a different lens. The same expansive lens Ebert believed movies had the power to create.

Roger loved Chaz, and Chaz loved Roger deeply. The last years of his life required Chaz to care for him 24-7. You see her love and sacrifice beautifully portrayed in the film, as Chaz cares for her ailing husband. She also helped to keep Ebert’s legacy alive on his website, hosting film festivals, and inviting a variety of film critics to write on the site. The Ebert’s had a beautiful twenty year run. In 2013, Roger Ebert met his maker.

When I reflect back to the mid 2000s, I did not know the struggles Ebert faced. I was naïve about the impact Ebert made on film, and more importantly on people. He used his platform to share his passion for film and gave opportunity to film makers often forgotten in our culture. Stories that are worth telling and often get lost in the mainstream film community. He might’ve saved Martin Scorsese’s career and life.

Life Itself is also a lesson of writing through the pain. Ebert was a driven man. He loved his work. I think it made those last years amid health challenges possible because of the work. The outlet he carved out on his blog to continue his work of sharing stories for the world to enjoy. Dare I say, the blog saved his life.

Studies show that often the happiest people are those who have something to contribute to the world. They have a purpose beyond themselves. Even in older age when men and women have something to set their hands to, a hobby, or something to give to the world, they have a more healthy and happy latter years. Roger was no exception.

In the film, you can see a constant smile on his face during his last days. A smile as he writes another film review. A smile while they suction his throat and as he holds Chaz’s hand. Ebert found joy amid the pain. He found joy in doing the generous thing. Sharing his art.

The internet can be a dumpster fire for sure. But the gift of websites and blogs allows for our message to live well beyond our lives. Ebert is doing just that. He’s carrying on a legacy of doing the generous thing beyond the grave. You can disagree with his film critiques or politics. Some would argue he was too nice with many films, and not harsh enough on others. One person in the documentary said he got too close to the celebrities.

Regardless, his work and presence will live on. He will inspire another generation of movie goers and film critics. And speaking of presence, read his last post before he died.

Our lives are brief and a great temptation is to consume as much as we can. Instead of considering how to create and give away more than we take.

Does it mean we all need to become film critics? Write novels or screenplays? No way. We need teachers, doctors, social workers, construction managers, and stay-at-home mothers. We need people in every corner of society doing generous things.

Roger Ebert saw the power of stories. The power films play in the lives of people. The way a story well told could inspire someone to do something great with their lives. Ebert described movies in this way:

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”

Films will not cure cancer. But it’s often a window into the worlds of people and cultures and ways to see reality through the eyes of another.

I’m glad Roger Ebert made this generous contribution to film and hopefully, by his example, will inspire others to do the same.

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