Roger Ebert: I do not fear death
By ROGER EBERT
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. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, 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.
I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist. I might be gone at any given second.”
Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, illness led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. That led me to the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and I became engulfed on my blog in unforeseen discussions about God, the afterlife, religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death.
Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, 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.
And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it. I know a priest whose eyes twinkle when he says, “You go about God’s work in your way, and I’ll go about it in His.”
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.
O’Rourke’s had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:
I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.
That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “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.
One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing.” I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.
Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.
Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.” I correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 2010 he came very close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a documentary named “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself “a simple worshiper of the external Buddha.” Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, “Not by foot, I hope!”
Official statement on the death of Roger Ebert
“We are saddened to share the news that our longtime colleague Roger Ebert has died. He was 70. Roger has been writing for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years. The long relationship between Roger and his Sun-Times family speaks volumes about Roger’s commitment to his craft and to his fans around the world. Roger’s reviews were highly anticipated by readers and the film community. Film commentary was only one of several gifts. He was a reporter first, in every aspect of his craft. He could write as eloquently about world affairs as he could on the upcoming blockbuster. Roger will be missed not only by the Sun-Times family, but by the journalism and film communities. Our thoughts are with Roger’s wife, Chaz, and their family during this time.”
Editor in Chief [Chicago Sun-Times]
Chaz Ebert: ‘No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition’
“I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger — my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years. He fought a courageous fight. I’ve lost the love of my life, and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.
“Roger was a beloved husband, stepfather to Sonia and Jay, and grandfather to Raven, Emil, Mark and Joseph. Just yesterday he was saying how his grandchildren were ‘the best things in my life.’ He was happy and radiating satisfaction over the outpouring of responses to his blog about his 46th year as a film critic. But he was also getting tired of his fight with cancer, and said if this takes him, he has lived a great and full life.
“We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.
“We are touched by all the kindness and the outpouring of love we’ve received. And I want to echo what Roger said in his last blog, thank you for going on this journey with us.”
— Chaz Ebert
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" review of "The Apartment"
The Apartment (1960)
BY ROGER EBERT / July 22, 2001
There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not. ''The Apartment'' is so affecting partly because of that buried reason: It takes place on the shortest days of the year, when dusk falls swiftly and the streets are cold, when after the office party some people go home to their families and others go home to apartments where they haven't even bothered to put up a tree. On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn't there anymore.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a definitive lonely guy, in ''The Apartment,'' with the ironic twist that he is not even free to go home alone, because his apartment is usually loaned out to one of the executives at his company. He has become the landlord for a series of their illicit affairs; they string him along with hints about raises and promotions. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) hears the nightly sounds of passion through the wall and thinks Baxter is a tireless lover, when in fact Baxter is pacing the sidewalk out in front, looking up resentfully at his own lighted window.
When Billy Wilder made ''The Apartment'' in 1960, ''the organization man'' was still a current term. One of the opening shots in the movie shows Baxter as one of a vast horde of wage slaves, working in a room where the desks line up in parallel rows almost to the vanishing point. This shot is quoted from King Vidor's silent film ''The Crowd'' (1928), which is also about a faceless employee in a heartless corporation. Cubicles would have come as revolutionary progress in this world.
Baxter has no girlfriend and, apparently, no family. Patted on the back and called ''buddy boy'' by the executives who use him, he dreams of a better job and an office of his own. One day he even gets up his nerve and asks out one of the elevator girls, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but she stands him up at the last moment because of a crisis in her relationship with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). She thought her affair with Sheldrake was over, but now apparently it's on again; he keeps talking about divorcing his wife, but never does.
The screenplay, executed as a precise balance between farce and sadness, has been constructed by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond to demonstrate that while Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other--may feel genuine feelings of the sort that lead to true love--they are both slaves to the company's value system. He wants to be the boss' assistant, she wants to be the boss' wife, and both of them are so blinded by the concept of ''boss'' that they can't see Mr. Sheldrake for an untrustworthy rat.
The movie has been photographed in widescreen black and white. The b&w dampens down any jollity that might sweep in with the decorations at the Christmas parties, bars and restaurants where the holidays are in full swing. And the widescreen emphasizes space that separates the characters, or surrounds them with emptiness. The design of Baxter's apartment makes his bedroom door, in the background just to the left of center, a focal point; in there reside the secrets of his masters, the reasons for his resentments, the arena for his own lonely slumber, and eventually the stage on which Miss Kubelik will play out the crucial transition in her life.
Other shots track down Manhattan streets and peer in through club windows, and isolate Miss Kubelik and the phony-sincere Mr. Sheldrake in their booth at the Chinese restaurant, where he makes earnest protestations of his good intentions, and glances uneasily at his watch.
By the time he made ''The Apartment,'' Wilder had become a master at a kind of sardonic, satiric comedy that had sadness at its center. ''Double Indemnity'' (1944) was about a man (MacMurray again) who trusted that one simple crime would solve his romantic and financial troubles. ''Sunset Boulevard'' has William Holden as a paramour to a grotesque aging movie queen (Gloria Swanson), but there was pathos in the way her former husband (Erich von Stroheim) still worshiped at the shrine of her faded greatness.
Wilder was fresh off the enormous hit ''Some Like it Hot'' (1959), his first collaboration with Lemmon, and Lemmon was headed toward ''The Days of Wine and Roses'' (1962), which along with ''The Apartment'' showed that he could move from light comedian to tragic everyman. This movie was the summation of what Wilder had done to date, and the key transition in Lemmon's career.
It was also a key film for Shirley MacLaine, who had been around for five years in light comedies and had good scenes in ''Some Came Running'' (1958) but here emerged as a serious actress who would flower in the 1960s.
What is particularly good about her Miss Kubelik is the way she doesn't make her a ditzy dame who falls for a smooth talker, but suggests a young woman who has been lied to before, who has a good heart but finite patience, who is prepared to make the necessary compromises to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake. The underlying seriousness of MacLaine's performance helps anchor the picture--it raises the stakes, and steers it away from any tendency to become musical beds.
What's particularly perceptive is the way, after her suicide attempt, she hauls herself together and actually gives Sheldrake another chance. Like Baxter, she has not been forced into job prostitution, but chosen it. One of the ways this is an adult picture and not a sitcom is the way it takes Baxter and Miss Kubelik so long to make the romantic leap; they aren't deluded fools, but jaded realists who have given up on love and are more motivated by paychecks. There is a wonderful, wicked, delicacy in the way Wilder handles the final scene, and finds the right tender-tough note in the last lines of the screenplay. (''Shut up and deal'' would become almost as famous as ''nobody's perfect,'' the immortal closing lines of ''Some Like it Hot.'')
As it happened, I watched ''The Apartment'' not long after Jack Lemmon's death, and looked at Blake Edwards' ''The Days of Wine and Roses'' (1962) and James Foley's ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' (1992) at the same time. The side-by-side viewings were an insight into Lemmon's acting, and into changing styles in movies. ''The Days of Wine and Roses'' has dated, in my opinion; the famous greenhouse scene looks more like overacting than alcoholism. Wilder's ''The Lost Weekend'' (1945) was made 17 years earlier but feels more contemporary in his treatment of alcoholism. ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' contains probably Lemmon's best performance. His aging, desperate real estate salesman is deserving of comparison with anyone's performance of Willy Loman in ''Death of a Salesman,'' and it is interesting how Lemmon, who famously began with directors asking him to dial down and give ''a little less,'' was able here to hit the precise tones needed for the David Mamet dialogue, which is realism cloaked in mannerism.
In observing that ''The Lost Weekend'' hasn't dated, I could be making a comment about Wilder's work in general. Even a lightweight romantic comedy like ''Sabrina'' (1954) holds up better than its 1990s remake, and the great Wilder pictures don't play as period pieces but look us straight in the eye. ''Some Like It Hot'' is still funny, ''Sunset Boulevard'' is still a masterful gothic character comedy, and ''The Apartment'' is still tougher and more poignant than the material might have permitted. The valuable element in Wilder is his adult sensibility; his characters can't take flight with formula plots, because they are weighted down with the trials and responsibilities of working for a living. In many movies, the characters hardly even seem to have jobs, but in ''The Apartment'' they have to be reminded that they have anything else.
Thank you for this thread. He will be missed.... Love, C.
Thank you Rob for these moving, intelligent and insightful words from Roger Ebert. Someday we will all be facing what he faced. May we all have the grace that he had in accepting the inevitable.
Thanks for sharing this, Rob. It's the most beautiful piece of
writing i've read in a long time. There are so many statements
in this that spark my mind and my heart to open wide. i will not
dissect it here though; because i wouldn't want anyone else to
miss a bit of it.
RIP+ Roger Ebert
I also appreciated your post, Rob ~ thank you. Siskel & Ebert very often swayed my taste in films and taught me to view film from a different perspective, with a more detached eye. I will forever be indebted to their ability to discern the 'good' from the 'bad' to the downright 'ugly.'
I hope they've reunited and are now continuing to debate .... maybe in the Great Movie Theatre in the sky ...
Yes, Rob. Thank you so much for posting that particular blog entry from Roger Ebert. What a stunning and breathtaking elegy to not only himself, but also to the sacredness of our beautifully tragic mortal lifecycles here on this temporal earth. I love, in particular, his reference to Whitman:
"In my plans for life after death, 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 am reminded of so many others who have and continue to express in prose and in poetry the sacredness of that grounding foot ("soul") -- Earth connection--Thic Nhat Hahn's Peace is Every Step comes to mind. Also--as I was recently listening to Shirley's interview with him--Stephen Altschuler's The Mindful Hiker comes to mind. What luck we have to get to experience these lives and these bodies!
This Whitman quotation also reminds me so much of someone very special in my own life who died suddenly, tragically, without warning a few years ago at the young age of 38. She loved the mountains--the Smokies--and loved hiking them. She is there now in spirit and in ash. When we return there, we look for (and find) her in the trees, the waters, the "smoke," and . . . indeed . . . under our hiking"boot-soles." Even though she died at a young age, suddenly and without warning, she had arrangements for her passing scripted for us all, which included many readings--one of which was Pablo Neruda's "Love for this Book," a line of which reminds me of Ebert's citation to Whitman:
"So then, if living was nothing more than anticipating the earth, this soil and its harshness, deliver me, my love, from not doing my duty, and help me return to my place beneath the hungry earth."
Anyway . . . I am sorry for digressing away from celebrating the latest incarnation of Roger Ebert on this earth. What a beautiful soul. If any of you are ever in Chicago--my stompin' grounds--stop by the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. They show great films there that you will not find elsewhere, you'll be in terrific company, and it is simply an amazing tribute to films, Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and everything they taught us to appreciate and love in this life.
two hands together
Thanks Rob for sharing this with us. Truly beautiful experience.
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