It feels strange to focus on the death of one person when so many people were suffering and dying the past couple weeks. But Roger Ebert’s life meant a great deal to me personally, so I have to deal with his death personally.
I’ve never seen an episode of At the Movies, and I’m 23, so I’m more familiar with Ebert & Roeper than I am with Siskel & Ebert. I only knew of Gene Siskel from a joke in a Dilbert comic I read when I was 10*. My experience with Roger Ebert began in my freshman year of high school when I stumbled across his website and began to read his movie reviews. Pretty soon I was devouring his reviews in bulk, staying up late into the night to read his reviews of all the movies nominated for Best Picture or of all his favorite movies from the 1960s, and so on.
Much has been written of his style since his death. Pundits have referred to him as “the people’s critic” and to his style as concise and to the point. I think they’re right, but those things didn’t cross my mind as a high schooler. When I read his reviews, I felt his love for the movies, and he awakened in me an understanding of the potential power of movies. I didn’t always agree with him, but I trusted him to always be honest and clear. If he loved a movie, I wanted to see it. Some of my favorite movies now are movies that I saw because Ebert loved them: Almost Famous, Minority Report, Into the Wild, to name a few. I may not have sought those movies out were it not for his well-thought-out prose.
Earlier this year, my two remaining grandparents passed away. One death was expected for quite some time now, the other not expected at all, though he was 94 years old. None of my grandparents will be at my wedding in June, which seems wrong in my head. None of them even met Vicky, my fiancée. My family held a memorial service for both of my father’s parents (his father was the last of my grandparents to die, just recently in March) last weekend, and Vicky and I were able to drive up to Arkansas for it. It was an emotional couple of days; my uncle, who lived with his parents for the majority of his life while he took care of them and their land, choked up multiple times while he talked in front of everybody about my grandparents’ selflessness throughout their lives. My family says I’m the spitting image of my grandfather when he was my age. This makes me feel a stronger connection with him, though in reality my relationship with him was not incredibly deep, the product of the distance between us, he in Arkansas and I in Texas. The closest I have felt to him is when my father tells me stories about him.
My grandparents are far more important to me than Roger Ebert is. I’m sure I’ll still discover years from now ways that they influenced me, seeds they planted long ago that have yet to sprout. But with Ebert’s passing, I’m amazed at how much simply reading someone’s writing can bond you with someone. Since I was a freshman in high school I’ve read his reviews every week, I’ve read three or four of his books, and I’ve read every entry of his blog since he began it after his surgery stole his voice. I feel as though I’ve learned so much from him and grown from the poetry of his thoughts. His review of Pride & Prejudice, for example, put into words a feeling I had known for a while: “It is not enough that they love each other; they must also love the goodness in each other…” I always look back on that quote when I think of love, which, as I prepare for marriage, is often. He has influenced me so much, and I have never met the man. Essentially, everything I have ever written has been an attempt to start a conversation with Roger.
Something important that separates my grief for Roger Ebert from my grief for my grandparents is that I have hope that I will see my grandparents again. I firmly believe that they were all saved in Christ’s blood, made clean in God’s eyes by His sacrifice on the cross. But I fear that Roger Ebert was not. It breaks my heart that someone with so much wisdom and love missed the point of such things. He was not an atheist, as he did not specifically deny the existence of a god; but he did not believe in God. He refused to have faith in something so unreasonable. This breaks my heart. But perhaps he finally converted on his deathbed; it’s hard to not let go of that hope. Ebert’s life was a testament to me of the power of movies to reveal deeper truths about human nature. His death is a reminder to me of the weight of death apart from Christ.
*I’m sure the Dilbert comic was way over my head. But I remember the Siskel & Ebert reference well for some reason.