My husband and I have an inside joke that involves Roger Ebert. Whenever we have folks over for dinner and there’s a lull in conversation, Tom says, “Kerri, tell everyone about your ‘thumbs way up’ idea.”
He says this to tease me because I once did my thumbs-way-up schtick at a dinner party and stopped the conversation cold. No one was inspired even to say, “Hmmm. Interesting.”
The schtick goes like this. Surely, some movies are much better than others. “Anchorman” could get a thumbs up (it actually didn’t) and end up in the same group as “Schindler’s List.” But surely we want to distinguish really good from just over the line good. I think Siskel and Ebert need a thumbs way up category.
To me this was funny because it entirely misses the point of a thumbs up/down spirit. It’s the kind of thing academics do to a good thing--ruin it by adding complications, and subtle, inexplicable gradations. Apparently my self-deprecating critique was too subtle and inexplicable for dinner time stand-up.
The thumbs up/down critique was deeply rooted in Roger Ebert’s ethos of being an everyman, a movie goer, the best combination of a fan and a critic. Among his favorite movies were "Say Anything," "Do the Right Thing," and "Groundhog Day," as well as "Citizen Kane." Ebert always expressed joy and love for his work. It seemed deeply integrated into his life, into the kind of person he was. He never seemed to be a person of compartments. He was the real deal.
He seemed this way with cancer, too. He was a hero, to be sure, living life resolutely, wringing the joy and pleasure out of it and coping with loss and suffering as well as he could. I never got the feeling that he glossed over the suffering, though. The loss of his voice and the inability to eat or drink seemed profound for him.
But his gratitude for what was left was also profound. He had love and joy and a head full of ideas. He had movies. He was the kind of hero a person with cancer, a person like me, could learn from. He was accessible. He inspired but didn’t overwhelm.
His wife, Chaz, said that he was tired of fighting cancer, and I’m so glad she said that. It’s good to know that he chose to stand down, to rest, to lean into the universe.
He went gentle and at peace when he died, according to Chaz, "No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition."
In an interview, Roger Ebert said about death, "But there is also nothing to fear. We come from oblivion when we are born. We return to oblivion when we die. The astonishing thing is this period of in-between."
Thank god for the period of in-between that Roger Ebert lived.
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