A Voice from Beyond the Grave

April 04, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

For the dead, death is a permanent state, its precise composition impossible to determine by anyone able to discuss it. What lies on the other side is something no one can assert with surety. We can believe, but that's another thing. For the living, however, death is different. Never have the dead been more alive than they are today. It used to be that, in order to gain a whiff of immortality, one had to leave behind something lasting: a novel, a composition, a work of art. Most of those who lived in the 1700s are long forgotten. But there are a select few who, whether because their words or deeds have been preserved, remain with us today.

Things are a little different in 2014, however. The electronic age has given us all a larger footprint. Someone who dies today can leave behind a host of on-line flotsam and jetsam: tweets, blog posts, Facebook pages, websites, etc. Sometimes, it's a little eerie poking through these things post mortem, especially when the person in question wasn't expecting to meet the Grim Reaper. After the Aurora movie theater shootings, I remember following a link to the Twitter feed of one of the victims. 30 minutes before her death, she tweeted about standing in line to see the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises and being excited about what was to come. A half-hour later, she was dead, lying on the floor of the theater. A simple, innocent Tweet that gained a haunting power.

None of us should believe we have true permanence. We live on only for as long as the product of our lives is preserved. Even Shakespeare, perhaps the best-known author ever to write in English, will one day disappear. There will come a time when no one will speak or hear his words, when the paper upon which they are written will disintegrate and the electronic chips where they are stored will crumble. Impermanence is the natural state; it's the province of entropy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics will not be denied.

Still, there's no reason those of us living today should worry much about whether anyone will be able to quote Shakespeare in another 100, 500, or 1000 years. None of us will be around to care about it. Our egos make it difficult to contemplate oblivion. It's tough to envision a far removed future except in fiction.

Roger Ebert died a year ago today. Many of his words - thousands upon thousands of them, in fact - have been carefully maintained. His wife and those who care for his legacy have gone to great trouble to make sure they are available to anyone who wants to read them. Some 10,000 reviews and hundreds of blog entries are accessible. You can go to www.rogerebert.com and spend hours upon hours getting lost in that prose. The voice rings as loudly and clearly as ever. The only thing missing is new material. Roger's final blog entry, "A Leave of Presence," was posted on April 3, 2013. His final review, for Terence Malick's To the Wonder, was published two days after his death, on April 6, 2013. Since then, there has been only silence.

That silence creeps into our lives in various ways. For those who knew him well, it is an absence that time will modify but never fully patch. I was close to my grandparents, all of whom died during the relatively short period between 2000 and 2008. Sometimes, it seems almost inconceivable to me that they're gone but the sting of loss has faded. They are indelible pieces of my past, characters in memories whose images can be refreshed by looking at photographs. I value them for what they provided to a curious boy and a shy young man. When I think of them, I understand Dr. McCoy's words at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: "He's not really dead, as long as we remember him."

For those who had a little distance from Roger, it seems odd to think of him as no longer being among the living. His writings seem so much in the present. Many of his reviews and blog entries could have been written today. Likewise, the photographs of him seem current. A lifetime's work allows Roger to continue beyond his allotted years. He's like a movie star in that regard. Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne… all have been dead for decades yet their images loom as large as ever. That's the power of movies.

Many of us had our first exposure to Roger during the Sneak Previews years, or perhaps shortly thereafter, when he was inextricably coupled with Gene Siskel. I first began to appreciate Roger as an individual during the early 1990s, when I was able to read his reviews, rather than simply watching him spar on TV with Siskel for a few minutes. As great a writer and critic as Roger was, the Internet, which he embraced early, has returned the favor by helping to ensure that a part of him will live on, at least for a while. Without it, he would be just another dimly remembered face from a TV series that went off the air. But those bits and bytes allow us to visit Roger's site and find his words as fresh and vibrant as they ever were. Roger wrote as if he was speaking to the reader. So now, even a year after the silence descended, his words resonate with equal power. His arguments are as persuasive as ever. His knowledge hasn't dimmed. His passion hasn't diminished.

Someday, Roger's words, like Shakespeare's, will fade into eternity, snatched away by whatever force ends humanity's capacity to read or remember. But that day is not today. Roger Ebert may have passed beyond the grave but he has graciously left behind a better part of himself.