Source: Esquire Magazine
Author: Chris Jones
It has been nearly four years since Roger Ebert lost his lower jaw and his ability to speak. Now television’s most famous movie critic is rarely seen and never heard, but his words have never stopped.
For the 281st time in the last ten months Roger Ebert is sitting down to watch a movie in the Lake Street Screening Room, on the sixteenth floor of what used to pass for a skyscraper in the Loop. Ebert’s been coming to it for nearly thirty years, along with the rest of Chicago’s increasingly venerable collection of movie critics. More than a dozen of them are here this afternoon, sitting together in the dark. Some of them look as though they plan on camping out, with their coats, blankets, lunches, and laptops spread out on the seats around them.
The critics might watch three or four movies in a single day, and they have rules and rituals along with their lunches to make it through. The small, fabric-walled room has forty-nine purple seats in it; Ebert always occupies the aisle seat in the last row, closest to the door. His wife, Chaz, in her capacity as vice-president of the Ebert Company, sits two seats over, closer to the middle, next to a little table. She’s sitting there now, drinking from a tall paper cup. Michael Phillips, Ebert’s bearded, bespectacled replacement on At the Movies, is on the other side of the room, one row down. The guy who used to write under the name Capone for Ain’t It Cool News leans against the far wall. Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Sobczynski, dressed in black, are down front.
“Too close for me,” Ebert writes in his small spiral notebook.
Today, Ebert’s decided he has the time and energy to watch only one film, Pedro Almodóvar’s new Spanish-language movie, Broken Embraces. It stars Penélope Cruz. Steve Kraus, the house projectionist, is busy pulling seven reels out of a cardboard box and threading them through twin Simplex projectors.
Unlike the others, Ebert, sixty-seven, hasn’t brought much survival gear with him: a small bottle of Evian moisturizing spray with a pink cap; some Kleenex; his spiral notebook and a blue fine-tip pen. He’s wearing jeans that are falling off him at the waist, a pair of New Balance sneakers, and a blue cardigan zipped up over the bandages around his neck. His seat is worn soft and reclines a little, which he likes. He likes, too, for the seat in front of him to remain empty, so that he can prop his left foot onto its armrest; otherwise his back and shoulders can’t take the strain of a feature-length sitting anymore.
The lights go down. Kraus starts the movie. Subtitles run along the bottom of the screen. The movie is about a film director, Harry Caine, who has lost his sight. Caine reads and makes love by touch, and he writes and edits his films by sound. “Films have to be finished, even if you do it blindly,” someone in the movie says. It’s a quirky, complex, beautiful little film, and Ebert loves it. He radiates kid joy. Throughout the screening, he takes excited notes — references to other movies, snatches of dialogue, meditations on Almodóvar’s symbolism and his use of the color red. Ebert scribbles constantly, his pen digging into page after page, and then he tears the pages out of his notebook and drops them to the floor around him. Maybe twenty or thirty times, the sound of paper being torn from a spiral rises from the aisle seat in the last row.
The lights come back on. Ebert stays in his chair, savoring, surrounded by his notes. It looks as though he’s sitting on top of a cloud of paper. He watches the credits, lifts himself up, and kicks his notes into a small pile with his feet. He slowly bends down to pick them up and walks with Chaz back out to the elevators. They hold hands, but they don’t say anything to each other. They spend a lot of time like that.
Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can’t remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn’t happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory — it wasn’t as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into Chaz’s ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink, and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren’t they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word.
Ebert’s lasts almost certainly took place in a hospital. That much he can guess. His last food was probably nothing special, except that it was: hot soup in a brown plastic bowl; maybe some oatmeal; perhaps a saltine or some canned peaches. His last drink? Water, most likely, but maybe juice, again slurped out of plastic with the tinfoil lid peeled back. The last thing he said? Ebert thinks about it for a few moments, and then his eyes go wide behind his glasses, and he looks out into space in case the answer is floating in the air somewhere. It isn’t. He looks surprised that he can’t remember. He knows the last words Studs Terkel’s wife, Ida, muttered when she was wheeled into the operating room (“Louis, what have you gotten me into now?”), but Ebert doesn’t know what his own last words were. He thinks he probably said goodbye to Chaz before one of his own trips into the operating room, perhaps when he had parts of his salivary glands taken out — but that can’t be right. He was back on TV after that operation. Whenever it was, the moment wasn’t cinematic. His last words weren’t recorded. There was just his voice, and then there wasn’t.
Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other — unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.
He’s also developed a kind of rudimentary sign language. If he passes a written note to someone and then opens and closes his fingers like a bird’s beak, that means he would like them to read the note aloud for the other people in the room. If he touches his hand to his blue cardigan over his heart, that means he’s either talking about something of great importance to him or he wants to make it clear that he’s telling the truth. If he needs to get someone’s attention and they’re looking away from him or sitting with him in the dark, he’ll clack on a hard surface with his nails, like he’s tapping out Morse code. Sometimes — when he’s outside wearing gloves, for instance — he’ll be forced to draw letters with his finger on his palm. That’s his last resort.
C-O-M-C-A-S-T, he writes on his palm to Chaz after they’ve stopped on the way back from the movie to go for a walk.
“Comcast?” she says, before she realizes — he’s just reminded her that people from Comcast are coming over to their Lincoln Park brownstone not long from now, because their Internet has been down for three days, and for Ebert, that’s the equivalent of being buried alive: C-O-M-C-A-S-T. But Chaz still wants to go for a walk, and, more important, she wants her husband to go for a walk, so she calls their assistant, Carol, and tells her they will be late for their appointment. There isn’t any debate in her voice. Chaz Ebert is a former lawyer, and she doesn’t leave openings. She takes hold of her husband’s hand, and they set off in silence across the park toward the water.
They pass together through an iron gate with a sign that reads ALFRED CALDWELL LILY POOL. Ebert has walked hundreds of miles around this little duck pond, on the uneven stone path under the trees, most of them after one operation or another. The Eberts have lost track of the surgeries he has undergone since the first one, for thyroid cancer, in 2002, followed by the one on his salivary glands in 2003. After that, they disagree about the numbers and dates. “The truth is, we don’t let our minds dwell on these things,” Chaz says. She kept a journal of their shared stays in hospitals in Chicago and Seattle and Houston, but neither of them has had the desire to look at it. On those rare occasions when they agree to try to remember the story, they both lose the plot for the scenes. When Chaz remembers what she calls “the surgery that changed everything,” she remembers its soundtrack best of all. Ebert always had music playing in his hospital room, an esoteric digital collection that drew doctors and nurses to his bedside more than they might have been otherwise inclined to visit. There was one song in particular he played over and over: “I’m Your Man,” by Leonard Cohen. That song saved his life.
Seven years ago, he recovered quickly from the surgery to cut out his cancerous thyroid and was soon back writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and appearing with Richard Roeper on At the Movies. A year later, in 2003, he returned to work after his salivary glands were partially removed, too, although that and a series of aggressive radiation treatments opened the first cracks in his voice. In 2006, the cancer surfaced yet again, this time in his jaw. A section of his lower jaw was removed; Ebert listened to Leonard Cohen. Two weeks later, he was in his hospital room packing his bags, the doctors and nurses paying one last visit, listening to a few last songs. That’s when his carotid artery, invisibly damaged by the earlier radiation and the most recent jaw surgery, burst. Blood began pouring out of Ebert’s mouth and formed a great pool on the polished floor. The doctors and nurses leapt up to stop the bleeding and barely saved his life. Had he made it out of his hospital room and been on his way home — had his artery waited just a few more songs to burst — Ebert would have bled to death on Lake Shore Drive. Instead, following more surgery to stop a relentless bloodletting, he was left without much of his mandible, his chin hanging loosely like a drawn curtain, and behind his chin there was a hole the size of a plum. He also underwent a tracheostomy, because there was still a risk that he could drown in his own blood. When Ebert woke up and looked in the mirror in his hospital room, he could see through his open mouth and the hole clear to the bandages that had been wrapped around his neck to protect his exposed windpipe and his new breathing tube. He could no longer eat or drink, and he had lost his voice entirely. That was more than three years ago.
Ebert spent more than half of a thirty-month stretch in hospitals. His breathing tube has been removed, but the hole in his throat remains open. He eats through a G-tube — he’s fed with a liquid paste, suspended in a bag from an IV pole, through a tube in his stomach. He usually eats in what used to be the library, on the brownstone’s second floor. (It has five stories, including a gym on the top floor and a theater — with a neon marquee — in the basement.) A single bed with white sheets has been set up among the books, down a hallway filled with Ebert’s collection of Edward Lear watercolors. He shuffles across the wooden floor between the library and his living room, where he spends most of his time in a big black leather recliner, tipped back with his feet up and his laptop on a wooden tray. There is a record player within reach. The walls are white, to show off the art, which includes massive abstracts, movie posters (Casablanca, The Stranger), and aboriginal burial poles. Directly in front of his chair is a black-and-white photograph of the Steak ‘n Shake in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, one of his hometown hangouts.
He believes he’s had three more surgeries since the removal of his lower jaw; Chaz remembers four. Each time, however many times, surgeons carved bone and tissue and skin from his back, arm, and legs and transplanted them in an attempt to reconstruct his jaw and throat. Each time, he had one or two weeks of hope and relief when he could eat a little and drink a little and talk a little. Once, the surgery looked nearly perfect. (“Like a movie star,” Chaz remembers.) But each time, the reconstructive work fell apart and had to be stripped out, the hole opened up again. It was as though the cancer were continuing to eat away at him, even those parts of him that had been spared. His right shoulder is visibly smaller than his left shoulder; his legs have been weakened and riddled with scars. After each attempt at reconstruction, he went to rehabilitation and physical therapy to fix the increasing damage done. (During one of those rehabilitation sessions, he fell and broke his hip.) He still can’t sit upright for long or climb stairs. He’s still figuring out how to use his legs.
At the start of their walk around the pond, Ebert worries about falling on a small gravel incline. Chaz lets go of his hand. “You can do it,” she says, and she claps when Ebert makes it to the top on his own. Later, she climbs on top of a big circular stone. “I’m going to give my prayer to the universe,” she says, and then she gives a sun salutation north, south, east, and west. Ebert raises his arms into the sky behind her.
They head home and meet with the people from Comcast, who talk mostly to Chaz. Their Internet will be back soon, but probably not until tomorrow. Disaster. Ebert then takes the elevator upstairs and drops into his chair. As he reclines it slowly, the entire chair jumps somehow, one of its back legs thumping against the floor. It had been sitting on the charger for his iPhone, and now the charger is crushed. Ebert grabs his tray and laptop and taps out a few words before he presses a button and speakers come to life.
“What else can go wrong?” the voice says.
The voice is called Alex, a voice with a generic American accent and a generic tone and no emotion. At first Ebert spoke with a voice called Lawrence, which had an English accent. Ebert liked sounding English, because he is an Anglophile, and his English voice reminded him of those beautiful early summers when he would stop in London with Chaz on their way home after the annual chaos of Cannes. But the voice can be hard to decipher even without an English accent layered on top of it — it is given to eccentric pronunciations, especially of names and places — and so for the time being, Ebert has settled for generic instead.
Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don’t all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices — Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue — with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio. The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day. CereProc is mining Ebert’s TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won’t sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight — he’s a night owl; she prefers mornings — when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.
There are places where Ebert exists as the Ebert he remembers. In 2008, when he was in the middle of his worst battles and wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest — really, his annual spring festival of films he just plain likes — he began writing an online journal. Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it’s just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart’s wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They’re followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert’s strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he’d rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn’t exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life’s work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate — argument is encouraged, so long as it’s civil — and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice — not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
“It is saving me,” he says through his speakers.
He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it’s more efficient and time is precious:
When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.
He is a wonderful writer, and today he is producing the best work of his life. In 1975 he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer prize, but his TV fame saw most of his fans, at least those outside Chicago, forget that he was a writer if they ever did know. (His Pulitzer still hangs in a frame in his book-lined office down the hall, behind a glass door that has THE EBERT COMPANY, LTD.: FINE FILM CRITICISM SINCE 1967 written on it in gold leaf.) Even for Ebert, a prolific author — he wrote long features on Paul Newman, Groucho Marx, and Hugh Hefner’s daughter, among others, for this magazine in the late 1960s and early ’70s and published dozens of books in addition to his reviews for the Sun-Times — the written word was eclipsed by the spoken word. He spent an entire day each week arguing with Gene Siskel and then Richard Roeper, and he became a regular on talk shows, and he shouted to crowds from red carpets. He lived his life through microphones.
But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it’s like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It’s not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.
Even the simplest expressions take on higher power here. Now his thumbs have become more than a trademark; they’re an essential means for Ebert to communicate. He falls into a coughing fit, but he gives his thumbs-up, meaning he’s okay. Thumbs-down would have meant he needed someone to call his full-time nurse, Millie, a spectral presence in the house.
Millie has premonitions. She sees ghosts. Sometimes she wakes in the night screaming — so vivid are her dreams.
Ebert’s dreams are happier. Never yet a dream where I can’t talk, he writes on another Post-it note, peeling it off the top of the blue stack. Sometimes I discover — oh, I see! I CAN talk! I just forget to do it.
In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn’t get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can’t quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he’s never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole.
These things come to us, they don’t come from us, he writes about his cancer, about sickness, on another Post-it note. Dreams come from us.
We have a habit of turning sentimental about celebrities who are struck down — Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve — transforming them into mystics; still, it’s almost impossible to sit beside Roger Ebert, lifting blue Post-it notes from his silk fingertips, and not feel as though he’s become something more than he was. He has those hands. And his wide and expressive eyes, despite everything, are almost always smiling.
There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.
In fact, because he’s missing sections of his jaw, and because he’s lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can’t really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn’t have those muscles anymore. His eyes will water and his face will go red — but if he opens his mouth, his bottom lip will sink most deeply in the middle, pulled down by the weight of his empty chin, and the corners of his upper lip will stay raised, frozen in place. Even when he’s really angry, his open smile mutes it: The top half of his face won’t match the bottom half, but his smile is what most people will see first, and by instinct they will smile back. The only way Ebert can show someone he’s mad is by writing in all caps on a Post-it note or turning up the volume on his speakers. Anger isn’t as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.
There’s a reception to celebrate the arrival of a new ownership group at the Chicago Sun-Times, which Ebert feared was doomed to close otherwise. Ebert doesn’t have an office in the new newsroom (the old one was torn down to make way for one of Donald Trump’s glass towers), but so long as the newspaper exists, it’s another one of those outlets through which he can pretend nothing has changed. His column mug is an old one, taken after his first couple of surgeries but before he lost his jaw, and his work still dominates the arts section. (A single copy of the paper might contain six of his reviews.) He’s excited about seeing everybody. Millie helps him get dressed, in a blue blazer with a red pocket square and black slippers. Most of his old clothes don’t fit him anymore: “For meaningful weight loss,” the voice says, “I recommend surgery and a liquid diet.” He buys his new clothes by mail order from L. L. Bean.
He and Chaz head south into the city; she drives, and he provides direction by pointing and knocking on the window. The reception is at a place that was called Riccardo’s, around the corner from the Billy Goat. Reporters and editors used to stagger into the rival joints after filing rival stories from rival newsrooms. Riccardo’s holds good memories for Ebert. But now it’s something else — something called Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush, and after he and Chaz ease up to the curb and he shuffles inside, his shoulders slump a little with the loss of another vestige of old Chicago.
He won’t last long at the reception, maybe thirty or forty minutes. The only chairs are wooden and straight-backed, and he tires quickly in a crowd. When he walks into the room of journalistic luminaries — Roeper, Lynn Sweet, Rick Telander — they turn toward him and burst into spontaneous applause. They know he’s earned it, and they don’t know even half of what it’s taken him just to get into the room, just to be here tonight, but there’s something sad about the wet-eyed recognition, too. He’s confronted by elegies everywhere he goes. People take longer to say goodbye to him than they used to. They fuss over him, and they linger around him, and they talk slowly to him. One woman at the party even writes him a note in his notepad, and Ebert has to point to his ears and roll his eyes. He would love nothing more than to be holding court in a corner of the room, telling stories about Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum and Russ Meyer (who came to the Eberts’ wedding accompanied by Melissa Mounds). Instead he’s propped on a chair in the middle of the room like a swami, smiling and nodding and trying not to flinch when people pat him on the shoulder.
He took his hardest hit not long ago. After Roeper announced his departure from At the Movies in 2008 — Disney wanted to revamp the show in a way that Roeper felt would damage it — Ebert disassociated himself from it, too, and he took his trademarked thumbs with him. The end was not pretty, and the break was not clean. But because Disney was going to change the original balcony set as part of its makeover, it was agreed, Ebert thought, that the upholstered chairs and rails and undersized screen would be given to the Smithsonian and put on display. Ebert was excited by the idea. Then he went up to visit the old set one last time and found it broken up and stacked in a dumpster in an alley.
After saying their goodbyes to his colleagues (and to Riccardo’s), Ebert and Chaz go out for dinner, to one of their favorite places, the University Club of Chicago. Hidden inside another skyscraper, there’s a great Gothic room, all stone arches and stained glass. The room is filled mostly with people with white hair — there has been a big push to find younger members to fill in the growing spaces in the membership ranks — and they nod and wave at him and Chaz. They’re given a table in the middle of the room.
Ebert silently declines all entreaties from the fussy waiters. Food arrives only for Chaz and a friend who joins them. Ebert writes them notes, tearing pages from his spiral notepad, tapping his fingers together for his words to be read aloud. Everyone smiles and laughs about old stories. More and more, that’s how Ebert lives these days, through memories, of what things used to feel like and sound like and taste like. When his friend suddenly apologizes for eating in front of him, for talking about the buttered scallops and how the cream and the fish and the wine combine to make a kind of delicate smoke, Ebert shakes his head. He begins to write and tears a note from the spiral.
No, no, it reads. You’re eating for me.
Gene Siskel died eleven years ago, in February 1999, from a brain tumor. He was fifty-three years old. He had suffered terrible headaches in those last several months, but he was private about his pain. He didn’t talk about being sick or how he felt or what he expected or hoped for. He was stoic and solitary and quiet in his death. Siskel and Ebert were both defined, for most of their adult lives, by comparative measures: the fat one, the bald one, the loud one, the skinny one. Siskel was also the careful one. He joked that Ebert’s middle name was “Full Disclosure.” Ebert’s world has never had many secrets in it. Even at the end, when Siskel knew what was coming, he kept his secrets. He and Ebert never once spoke about his looming death.
There are pictures of Siskel all over the brownstone — on the grand piano, in the kitchen, on bookshelves. The biggest one is in the living room; Ebert can see it from his recliner. In almost all the pictures, Siskel and Ebert — never Ebert and Siskel — are standing together, shoulder to shoulder, smiling, two big thumbs-up. In the picture in the living room, they’re also wearing tuxedos.
“Oh, Gene,” Chaz says, and that’s all she says.
All these years later, the top half of Ebert’s face still registers sadness when Siskel’s name comes up. His eyes well up behind his glasses, and for the first time, they overwhelm his smile. He begins to type into his computer, slowly, deliberately. He presses the button and the speakers light up. “I’ve never said this before,” the voice says, “but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.” He thinks for a moment before he begins typing again. There’s a long pause before he hits the button. “I just miss the guy so much,” the voice says. Ebert presses the button again. “I just miss the guy so much.”
Last February, to mark the tenth anniversary of Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote an entry in his online journal called “Remembering Gene.” He calls it up on his screen. It is beautifully written, filled with stories about arguments, even pitched battles, but nearly every memory is tinged with love and humor. Ebert scrolls through each paragraph, his eyes brimming, the smile winning again. The first lousy balcony set had painted pop bottles for rail supports. Siskel had courtside tickets for the Bulls and thought Phil Jackson was a sage. His beautiful daughters, Cate and Callie, were the flower girls for the Eberts’ wedding.
And then comes the turn. Gene’s first headache struck in the back of a limo on their way to be on Leno, which was broadcasting from Chicago. In front of the audience, Siskel could manage only to agree with everything Ebert said; they made it a gag. That night Siskel went to the Bulls game because they were in the playoffs, but the next day he underwent some tests. Not long after that, he had surgery, but he never told anyone where he was going to have it. He came back and for a time he continued taping the show with Ebert. Siskel’s nephew would help him to his seat on the set, but only after the set was cleared.
Our eyes would meet, the voice reads from Ebert’s journal, unspoken words were between us, but we never spoke openly about his problems or his prognosis. That’s how he wanted it, and that was his right.
Gene Siskel taped his last show, and within a week or two he was dead. Ebert had lost half his identity.
He scrolls down to the entry’s final paragraph.
We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled “Best Enemies.” It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.
Ebert keeps scrolling down. Below his journal he had embedded video of his first show alone, the balcony seat empty across the aisle. It was a tribute, in three parts. He wants to watch them now, because he wants to remember, but at the bottom of the page there are only three big black squares. In the middle of the squares, white type reads: “Content deleted. This video is no longer available because it has been deleted.” Ebert leans into the screen, trying to figure out what’s happened. He looks across at Chaz. The top half of his face turns red, and his eyes well up again, but this time, it’s not sadness surfacing. He’s shaking. It’s anger.
Chaz looks over his shoulder at the screen. “Those fu — ” she says, catching herself.
They think it’s Disney again — that they’ve taken down the videos. Terms-of-use violation.
This time, the anger lasts long enough for Ebert to write it down. He opens a new page in his text-to-speech program, a blank white sheet. He types in capital letters, stabbing at the keys with his delicate, trembling hands: MY TRIBUTE, appears behind the cursor in the top left corner. ON THE FIRST SHOW AFTER HIS DEATH. But Ebert doesn’t press the button that fires up the speakers. He presses a different button, a button that makes the words bigger. He presses the button again and again and again, the words growing bigger and bigger and bigger until they become too big to fit the screen, now they’re just letters, but he keeps hitting the button, bigger and bigger still, now just shapes and angles, just geometry filling the white screen with black like the three squares. Roger Ebert is shaking, his entire body is shaking, and he’s still hitting the button, bang, bang, bang, and he’s shouting now. He’s standing outside on the street corner and he’s arching his back and he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.
His doctors would like to try one more operation, would like one more chance to reclaim what cancer took from him, to restore his voice. Chaz would like him to try once more, too. But Ebert has refused. Even if the cancer comes back, he will probably decline significant intervention. The last surgery was his worst, and it did him more harm than good. Asked about the possibility of more surgery, he shakes his head and types before pressing the button.
“Over and out,” the voice says.
Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.
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, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” 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. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, 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.
There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.
I believe that if, at the end of it all, 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.
Ebert takes joy from the world in nearly all the ways he once did. He has had to find a new way to laugh — by closing his eyes and slapping both hands on his knees — but he still laughs. He and Chaz continue to travel. (They spent Thanksgiving in Barbados.) And he still finds joy in books, and in art, and in movies — a greater joy than he ever has. He gives more movies more stars.
But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.
Earlier today, his publisher sent him two copies of his newest book, the silver-jacketed Great Movies III, wrapped in plastic. Ebert turned them over in his hands, smiling with satisfaction — he wrote most of it in hospital beds — before he put them on a shelf in his office, by the desk he can no longer sit behind. They filled the last hole on the third shelf of his own published work; later this year, another book — The Pot and How to Use It, a collection of Ebert’s rice-cooker recipes — will occupy the first space on a fourth shelf. Ebert’s readers have asked him to write his autobiography next, but he looks up from his laptop and shrugs at the thought. He’s already written a lot about himself on his journal, about his little childhood home in Champaign-Urbana and the days he spent on TV and in hospitals, and he would rather not say the same thing twice.
Besides, he has a review to finish. He returns his attention to his laptop, its glow making white squares in his glasses. Music plays. Words come.
Pedro Almodóvar loves the movies with lust and abandon and the skill of an experienced lover. “Broken Embraces” is a voluptuary of a film, drunk on primary colors, caressing Penélope Cruz, using the devices of a Hitchcock to distract us with surfaces while the sinister uncoils beneath. As it ravished me, I longed for a freeze-frame to allow me to savor a shot.
Ebert gives it four stars.