The first line of Roger Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself, is the kind of opening line most writers wish they had written: "I was born inside the movie of my life." It's an elegant, humble start to the story of a writer who became the only movie critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. The only movie critic, it is said, that many people ever read. Well, for the sake of movie critics everywhere—and here I think Roger Ebert would agree with me—I hope that's not true.
Ebert left behind a lifelong career of loving movies, a body of written work unparalleled, save maybe in the works of the great Pauline Kael, a body of work he planned to continue building even as his own body was failing him. I knew him through his writing, and I found his prose always to be warm, witty, and eloquent, even when he was being downright acerbic. His criticism I sometimes liked less, as he occasionally got his facts wrong, misremembering or misquoting. Still, he always had an eye for the loving details, as in his review of Star Wars, where he notes Luke's landspeeder reminds him "uncannily of a 1965 Mustang."
A decade ago, when I began watching movies in earnest—which only means, with aspirations to write about how and why they move me—I usually disagreed with Ebert's overly generous, three- and four-star reviews of popular American films. His reviews of the great movies, though, I absorbed, so conversational and approachable was his style. As the years have gone by, I've mellowed in my own conversations, gotten more approachable myself when it comes to movies, and I see his work now in a different light. He was that rare and gifted writer who bridges the gap between his subject (cinema) and his readers (everyone). No small feat in a nation that still holds little respect for movies as art.
Tonight I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the greatest movies ever made about longing, isolation, love and loneliness. Ebert wrote this about it, in one of his finest reviews: "It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come—not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem—an elegy for the dead."
It's a fitting kind of mourning, I think, to revisit this movie tonight. Ebert has been an undeniable influence upon this blog, just as another writer I once knew, Barry Hannah, was of immeasurable influence upon my fiction. I once thought Warren Beatty's achingly beautiful line—"I got poetry in me!"—might have been attributed to Barry, who spent some time in Hollywood in the seventies and worked with Robert Altman doctoring scripts. A friend chased that theory down and, straight from Barry's mouth, debunked it. But it's still the kind of line Barry would have written, probably wished he had, when he thought about it. And so McCabe & Mrs. Miller has always held a special place in my heart as the movie that reminds me of a writer who taught me, who teaches me still. Now, I guess, two such writers owe the film a debt.
In Life Itself, speaking of his own death, Ebert says, "What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins's theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes."
That list of memes seems like a thing McCabe might rattle off to himself, mumbling his heart out before a mirror, putting bullets in his pistol. Unlike McCabe, Ebert will be remembered for a much longer while, and he never mumbled.
A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2013.