Thanks to a helpful Facebook post by Chaz Ebert, I learned that the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself is now playing in Scottsdale (Shea).
Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the documentary enormously and I hope that other people see it. I think it may be worth noting, though, that, aside from being equal parts funny and moving, the film also takes an unflinching look at the illness that took Ebert’s life.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why it was so important to Ebert that he not hide his illness, not because I find it difficult to see him in such discomfort (I do, of course), but because of one review of his I have long found frustrating.
That would be his critical review of The Elephant Man (a movie that reduces me to a blubbering mound of flesh and mucus every time I watch it): “The film’s philosophy is this shallow: (1)Wow, the Elephant Man sure looked hideous, and (2)gosh, isn’t it wonderful how he kept on in spite of everything? This last is in spite of a real possibility that John Merrick’s death at twenty-seven might have been suicide.”*
As I re-read the review, though, I think I finally see the consistency in Ebert’s thinking. In his review of movie after movie about people battling illness, he always praises the characters’ accomplishments outside of the illness. To him, just dealing with illness itself is not a sign of bravery.
You can see this in his essay about Mike Nichols’s soul-wrenching Wit: “Although people in my situation are always praised for their courage, actually courage has nothing to do with it. There is no choice.”*
In his review of Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist [about a man with cystic fibrosis], Ebert focuses on the fact that Flanagan does not just endure his illness; he retaliates: “No one can say that Bob Flanagan, after his fashion and in his own way, did not fight back.”*
Here is Ebert on The Sea Inside [about a man who is a quadriplegic]: “What would I do in the same situation as the man in Spain? I am reminded of something written by another Spaniard, the director Luis BuÃ±uel. What made him angriest about dying, he said, was that he would be unable to read tomorrow’s newspaper. I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate. If I were trapped inside my mind, like the hero of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, that would be another matter — although consider the life of Helen Keller.”*
And, my favorite of these contemplations, from The Diving Bell and Butterfly: “At the end we are left with the reflection that human consciousness is the great miracle of evolution, and all the rest (sight, sound, taste, hearing, smell, touch) are simply a toolbox that consciousness has supplied for itself. Maybe it would even be better to be Trumbo’s Johnny than never to have been conscious at all.”*
In exploring all of this again, I think I’ve finally come to appreciate Ebert’s take on The Elephant Man. It brings me back to conversations and arguments I’ve been having about art for as long as I can remember. My assumption is that it works like this generally: we’re deeply affected by a song or a movie or a painting (or religious text or political treatise). Besides whatever stimulated this emotional reaction, there may or may not be something intellectually satisfying that happened. If not, we’ll probably invent some mythology around the thing to bring our intellectual satisfaction more in line with our emotional satisfaction. I may have to watch the movie again to know for sure, but I now feel equipped to deal with the fact that I may be guilty of just that with respect to The Elephant Man.
I am also satisfied that Ebert’s decision to display his illness so openly was self-consistent. He knew this was his story (and the illness is obviously part of his story). He was deeply opposed to censorship. I assume he would easily extend that to self-censoring his illness. He probably reservedly accepted that he would win points for “bravery” simply by being ill and continuing to exist. However, he also knew that he had a quality body of work that would succeed him, one for which he wouldn’t mind receiving due praise.
And, did I mention that the documentary is out now?