Saturday, October 1, 2016
While in Champaign for the Pygmalion Festival last weekend, my attentive host, Seth Fein, asked if I wanted to see the statue of my late colleague Roger Ebert. Of course I said that I did. We went directly from dinner and found him, sitting in his movie theater seats in front of the Virginia Theatre, his thumb up in perpetual approval.
I've written before of the oddness of seeing men you know or knew in life rendered into bronze—and only men; the women of my acquaintance tend to be spared. As much as I admire Roger, I can't say I was pleased to see him forever—or for the next century anyway— exiled to the streets of his home town. Perhaps because his words form such a permanent and aesthetic tribute, one that will, in my opinion, far outlast any statue. Perhaps because the likeness is at best an approximation, reminding me of those static depictions of kids at play that Northbrook has scattered around its downtown park, images that are closer to metallic corpses than reflections of living children. Perhaps because it lacks the humor and warmth and uniqueness of the man himself, or because of those empty seats on either side of him, inviting tourists to plop down and wrap a chummy arm around Roger, something he would have despised in life.
And yes, I did sit down, and pat his cold, hollow back, and a picture was taken, but it felt wrong, even as I was doing it, and I will spare us both the embarrassment of the result.
Best not to dwell on it. I understand that such projects are reflections of grief, and longing, highly valued by those closest, and thus beyond criticism. Such statues are closer to gravestones than art, and the decent individual doffs his cap and passes silently by.
Still, I can't help but wonder what Roger would have made of it — I'm sure he'd capture its dubiousness with greater audacity and skill than I dare muster.