“Life Itself” is the title of his graceful memoir, published in 2011, and its opening line captures how he (and we) are wedded to cinema: “I was born inside the movie of my life.” We all are. Our lives unspool behind us in Technicolor, in Cinemascope, in dissolves and montages and swish-pans and close-ups. He was the celebrant of modern America’s intimate union with the medium. He chronicled how we retreat into the temple of movie theaters, how we step outside ourselves, how after the credits we emerge into the world wider-eyed and clearer-headed.
Because of Roger Ebert I am enraptured by “The Third Man” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” I am over the moon for “The Producers.” I prize the work of Billy Wilder and the delight it brings to my life. Because of Roger Ebert I have seen “Tokyo Story.” Because of Roger Ebert’s splendid audio commentary on the DVDs of “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca,” I not only understand but appreciate why the first is the greatest movie and the second is the most beloved.
He dissected his passion by conducting shot-by-shot workshops. He democratized it by creating an “overlooked” film festival. When cancer and surgery robbed him of a voice several years ago, his writing muse worked overtime. His blog, like his wife Chaz, was a salvation. In between his vigorous reviews, he tapped out long essays seemingly out of nowhere. Each was a review of the action of living. He once spent a couple thousand words recounting his lust for a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, though he was really delivering a treatise on nostalgia and loss. He once wrote about the rudimentary matters of traveling and walking, but the way he wrote it made it read like a tracking shot by Carlo di Palma, made it move as if jump-cut by Godard, made it resonate like a sequence of Altman’s.
A piece of writing is not what it is about but how it is about it.
He beat alcoholism.
He didn’t beat cancer.
So it goes, he might have said.
In a career of great lines, his best was this: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Ebert was the man who pulled back the curtains on those windows, who beckoned us to their panes. Come, see. Look at the million lifetimes you can live while consigned to your own. Outside those windows floated Orson Welles in a dark Viennese doorway, a helmeted Klaus Kinski on his raft in the Amazon, Frances McDormand barfing on the side of a Minnesotan highway.
Roger Ebert taught me to love the movies, and therefore life itself, and I will have this love for the rest of my life. So will others. There are scores of thankful apprentices out there today, humming with grief and gratitude in newsrooms, in the blogosphere, on Twitter, in darkening movie theaters. Darkening, darkening, darkening and then: the drums and blaring brass as 20th Century Fox spins its searchlights, and we are again enraptured by lives and worlds beyond our own. Our guide to these worlds is gone, but because of him we know the terrain.