When I think about personal heroes, I always seem to come up a little short. Certainly there are individuals – contemporary and in the past – who are worthy of admiration and some degree of hero-worship. I might be crazy for Joe Strummer or Louis Armstrong, but they had talent and used it. I admire this talent and what this talent produced. It gets sticky though when the hero tag gets thrown around. What if personal behaviour or choices conspire to undermine this greatness? Apparently John Lennon wasn’t the nicest man all the time.
It should be easy to find the heroic in those around who seek to make our world a better place. I admire Roméo Dallaire, (now) retired Senator and Canadian Forces general. His book Shake Hands with the Devil, considers his 1993-1994 tour as Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda and that mission’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide. Dallaire lives his life with remarkable conviction, bravery, and idealism. These are big, heroic, qualities. Dallaire is inspiring and – in my mind at least – absolutely heroic with what he did (does) with his life. No question.
But I look to how one lives a life when I seek a personal hero. With that, I was excited recently to see Life Itself, the new documentary on Roger Ebert. For most I suspect, Ebert was the shorter, heavier dude in that famous Siskel & Ebert “thumbs up” film critic partnership. They were as famous as some of the movie stars they praised or slammed.
Roger Ebert was so much more than that. We’ve covered Ebert and some of his legacy here on this site already; please read Sarah’s excellent blog / tribute on Ebert’s passing last year. Sarah nails why Ebert’s film writing was so vital, enjoyable and insightful. His voice was informative – yet both supportive and biting. I fell in love with his writing when I received as a gift the CD ROM (anyone remember those?) that held the complete Ebert body of work. His work on Sneak Previews really didn’t do his writing justice.
The review that made me a believer? I was – and still am – a huge Romero / zombie fan. Check out Ebert’s thoughts on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This is a reviewer who appreciates the craft, skill and intelligence needed for excellent filmmaking but Ebert was also a populist who understood that film was fun. He was never an elitist who focused only on film’s loftier artistic goals. He praised Bergman (as he should) but he also had time for movies like The Descent. He loved Superhero movies. Go read the reviews; as Sarah notes, the library has all kinds of books to start digging into this movie writing.
So yeah, I was a fan of Ebert. This appreciation deepened into something else when (unfortunately) Ebert developed cancer in his jaw. Due to the several surgeries that removed portions of his jawbone, he was forced to retreat from his television and public life. He didn’t retreat from his writing, however. Ebert was an early adopter of technology (recall my CD ROM), so his reviews were online early. And since he couldn’t speak, he poured everything out into his blog and twitter feed. If anything, his writing became more prolific.
His writing also became more generous and expansive. He still wrote above movies. His love for film and film culture still permeated. But something else happened: as his physical challenges increasingly limited how he could live physically, his world grew in other ways. In the end, he could only consume food through a tube inserted into a hole in his throat (this is harrowingly depicted in the documentary). Yet despite this limitation, he became so enamoured with the rice cooker, he wrote a whole book about it.
I remember reading when he first blogged about the rice cooker. It initially seemed odd, but then he was soon blogging about so many topics: politics, gun control, evolution, what-have-you. Why not a cookbook on something so unassuming as the rice cooker?
I remember when he blogged about his battle against alcoholism. I remember his blogs about his repeated attempts (and subsequent failures) to win the weekly New Yorker cartoon caption contest. He wrote about his childhood and he wrote about his love for the Toronto International Film Festival. At its heart, this writing was about his love for life.
Lately I have become obsessed with Julia Child (there is a future blog here, but I still have more books to read). Like Ebert, Child lived to embrace life, with generosity and enthusiasm. This joy at living – this is a trait I seem to admire these days. Remarkable people, like Dallaire and others, offer virtues I admire. And if tested, I hope to manage even a fraction of the grace and courage they have demonstrated. But it is the day to day stuff that truly makes me pause. I want to look to those that offer clues on how to get the most from life – today.
Ebert was one of these people.