Roger Ebert’s death has saddened me perhaps more than that of any other critic. I spent a lot of time on reading reviews and the chronicling of his illness on his blog, so I felt an unusual kind of closeness. I am easily seduced by personal blogs, and he was a master storyteller.
This was particularly evident in “Nil by mouth“, a 2010 post on the effects of not being able to eat or drink. “Do you miss it?” a reader asked. The response meandered through memories of meals, a fleeting obsession with Coke-a-Cola, and the necessity of tuna melts in Greek restaurants. Several times he concluded that, “No,” he didn’t miss it. He did, however, miss the conversation.
I thought about that a little when reading his final blog post, “A Leave of Presence“, which mostly talked about the ways he would keep working. I suppose the title should have clued me in to his imminent death, but when he said it meant he wasn’t going away, I took his words literally. I didn’t want a metaphor for his conversational voice, I wanted his voice. “In addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you,” he promised. I assumed the light of his writing would still brighten my laptop every few days.
That’s harder said than done on the web, where nothing lives if we don’t tweet or post with frequency. How on earth can death compete with TweetDeck?
It doesn’t, but a powerful narrative might. Ebert suggested as much back in 2010, when he found his memories were frequently “welling up” as if he had no control over them, and I experienced this today, when my boyfriend sent me one such memory of his own. Knowing I was upset about Ebert’s death, he shared the kind of link that always cures my woes: art narratives.
It turns out, Ebert also wrote about art, and back in 1975, he offered an account of Chris Burden’s performance “Doomed“. Unlike Ebert, who seemed to enjoy interpreting the chatter around him, Burden seemed content to let whatever conceptual framework he established do all the talking. In this case, he lay on display under a sheet of glass for a day and a half, secretly waiting for the museum to disrupt his performance, thus “completing it”. Naturally, as Ebert tells it, when people failed to talk, Burden slowly went nuts.
“On the first night, when I realized [the museum wasn't] going to stop the piece, I was pleased and impressed that they had placed the integrity of the piece ahead of the institutional requirements of the museum.”
“On the second night, I thought, my God, don’t they care anything at all about me? Are they going to leave me here to die?”