Three years ago this month, Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. I have seldom, if ever, missed a writer more. Like most people, I first knew Ebert as a TV personality -- that "Two Thumbs Up" trademark actually struck me as annoyingly glib when I was middle-school age -- and it was only later, through his reviews and essays, that I grew to appreciate him both as a scholar of movies and as a philosophical writer. After some point, I didn't care if he was reviewing a film or opining about the latest spiritual or political issue that concerned him; his voice, which brought with it the aura of listening to a familiar companion on a back porch, became the occasion itself. Even today, I miss the simple ritual of punching Ebert's website into Firefox to read his latest commentary. What would he have thought about Ferguson and Baltimore? Edward Snowden? Same-sex marriage being legalized? And, Lord have mercy, Donald Trump?
I doubt that his positions on any of them would have come as a shock--the man was a diehard liberal, after all--but unlike the Larry Elders and Michael Moores of the world, Ebert had an unusual gift: to be critical, even vehement, and somehow still oddly reassuring. As a pundit, he was the equivalent of the tough teacher who marks up your paper with red ink but invites you to his office afterward to discuss your next assignment over crackers and tea. As funny as Ebert's negative reviews could be (and he was aware of this: hence the book-length collections I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), you rooted for him to like something--a film, a politician, anything--simply because you knew he would wax so eloquent in describing it. And if he was miserable, the unforced candor of his prose allowed you to share in the feeling, even if it wasn't for laughter's sake.
In Ebert's final years, that latter relationship with his audience became key, especially since humor often wasn't on his mind. By the time he succumbed three years ago, he had battled cancer for a decade, and few celebrities have ever been more up-front about an illness. Famously, Ebert lost his ability to speak and had part of his jaw removed; he still appeared in public with an electronic voice, making no effort to conceal the lower part of his face. On his blog--which, by the time of his death, had become as notable as his reviews--he repeatedly confronted the concept of death, and not merely his own. In his essay "I Remember You," he eulogized departed friends and family members whom he feared the world would forget in 100 years; in "Does Anyone Want to Be 'Well-Read?'", he turned his attention to beloved authors whose books had slipped into obscurity. It is a common belief of religions that we should spend part of life preparing for death. Ebert, who was not particularly religious, let his readers in on that process.
When Ebert died on April 4, 2013, his last published reviews were a pair of two-and-a-half-star writeups of the animated film From Up on Poppy Hill and the sci-fi thriller The Host. Neither seemed like much of a capper for his film-reviewing career, although Ebert didn't intend either one as such; shortly before his death, he posted a message to readers saying that he planned to reduce his workload due to health reasons and that he hoped to "see you at the movies" as he concentrated on reviewing select films. Two days after the message appeared, Ebert was gone. And then, news emerged that Ebert had filed one last review before he passed on: his take on To the Wonder, the impressionistic new film by Terrence Malick, whose The Tree of Life Ebert had hailed recently as one of the greatest films of all time.
Granted, it was not intended as Ebert's final review. But some writings or artworks grow more poignant in context; who, for example, can listen to Elvis Presley's groundbreaking recording of "That's All Right" without recalling the story of the shy 19-year-old who suddenly found his confidence in Sun Studio? Ebert's To the Wonder, taken not merely as a film analysis but as the last review of a man aware that his body was not long for the world, is almost chilling in its appropriateness. Most endings in real life are anticlimactic; many endings in the movies are overly tidy or clever. This one, for what it was worth, felt just about perfect.
I know Ebert's review of To the Wonder better than I know the film itself. I saw it once on a plane when I was tired, and I have just a vague recollection of it. Suffice to say that if you didn't like The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, it probably isn't for you--it has the same dreamlike quality, intentionally vague plot points and whispery voiceover narration. In awarding it three and a half stars, Ebert was in the minority (the movie currently holds a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I don't get the feeling, reading his review, that he felt much like being a critic at that moment. He notes the film's "half-understood" dialogue and lack of conventional storytelling, and admits, even while praising the film, that many viewers will probably dislike it.
What Ebert seems to respond to in To the Wonder is not the movie itself so much as the ideas it evokes in him. At times, he sounds almost like a man who has decided that he doesn't need to see any more movies, or at least dissect them the way he used to. At one point, he begins what sounds like a criticism by writing, "As the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something." But then, he adds, "As it continued, I realized many films could miss a great deal." He concedes to not caring that Malick didn't make his plot more linear or his characters' motivations more clear, and then comes to an epiphany of sorts in his second-to-last paragraph:
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
These don't sound like the words of a man who had years of film reviews left in him; to the contrary, they sound like those of a man who has more or less figured out what movies can do and is content to leave them aside. Had Ebert lived, he no doubt would have continued to add reviews to his Great Movies series and stop by the screening room for titles he anticipated. But perhaps the spark would have died. Donald Hall, the former U.S. Poet Laureate who is now in his 80s, stated recently that he had stopped writing poems for the simple reason that he didn't have any more poems in him. Ebert, with his growing real-life concerns, might have reached a similar peace with movie reviews.
Regardless, he ended on a high note: one that showed him at his eloquent best, reviewing a film he admired and delving under the surface for the insights it contained. We have nearly half a century of his other writings to remember him by. And not long after To the Wonder came out, the Chicago Sun-Times published one last Ebert review, one that he had written months earlier and filed away after viewing the movie at a festival. The title of that film? The Spectacular Now. Weigh those titles alongside one another: To the Wonder. The Spectacular Now. In the end, that's what all great writers do. They key us into the wonder, and the now.