Most of the email exchanges I had with Roger Ebert regarded things I thought he’d be interested in, usually art, dance or geek-related. This is one art-related one that he posted. 

Too often, we’re too busy with the little things in life to sit down and write our last testament.  Since 1991, Colorado Public Television has invited renowned individuals to leave a testament, their “11th Hour” talk. Roger Ebert was invited to speak in 1995, when he still was able to speak and before cancer silenced his voice and haunted his writings.  Roger spoke why arts are important.

The question was: “In facing your own mortality what final message would you leave for future generations?”

How did Roger respond? Despite Roger’s protest that he wasn’t religious, his words showed that his Catholic education had brought something to his mindset. He tells us he’s suspicious of any religion that is based on the “wrongness of other religions” but he also decries an education that doesn’t have a discussion about morality or ethics. He wasn’t against multiculturalism or religions so much as what he called the promotion of “tribalism” or, to put it more simply, the us versus them mentality.

The way to overcome tribalism was through the arts because while the arts are many things, the arts can be about emotions and sharing of the human experience. You might be surprised that Roger didn’t list film at the top of his arts. He clearly says that “reading is the most liberating of the arts” because no movie can re-create the possibilities that the mind can. Roger criticized entertainment that focused on violence or the “humor of the put-down” which he labeled verbal aggression.

When Roger asked me to review movies for his website, it did mean that for a time I would be turning away from theater. I write fewer and fewer reviews about theater, but I also see how theater is being influenced by the movies and now can be seen at the movies.

Now I’m asking myself where do I go from here. When I originally began as a theater critic, I went to many smaller theaters. Some of the work I enjoyed. Some of the plays were, in my estimation, a horrible waste of time because of bad acting or unadulterated vanity. Now, living much farther away from Hollywood, I have to calculate the price of gas and the meager economic returns of reviewing.

I’ve had a few epiphanies at theater. One particularly poisonous friendship was revealed to me while watching a play at South Coast Rep. In other cases it was the audience and their not so cool reaction to my coming accompanied by a black man that taught me a lesson or two about Los Angeles and the state of race relations.

Now I’m turning inward and thinking about my own art, my own writing and my own creating. I”ve been thinking about what is art and how it is evaluated. I no longer want to see clever little theater works about violence and what Roger called verbal aggression. I certainly won’t take the time to see such movies.

When I wrote above that I originally began as a theater critic I should really say I originally began as a sports writer. I became angry at my editor’s sexism and because of the rest of the staff’s fear of gender issues, I volunteered to write about “M. Butterfly.” I began blogging about films when I was angry about a film reviewer and even a film. Anger isn’t in itself a bad emotion, but when it becomes verbal aggression or hate speech it is horribly destructive.

What I like about theater and art is that there aren’t as many editors, producers and writers. A play usually isn’t written by committee. Most art pieces aren’t collaborative works although there is great need for editors and guidance from trusted critics and I don’t mean yes-men (unless it is this kind of yes-man).

What makes art important is its ability to share emotion, relate experiences and create empathy. If reading is the most important art, then so is writing. I feel as if what Roger was saying was in his talk was also: Write things that are worthy. Write things that promote understanding. But also create art that has meaning and don’t waste time. You never know when you will leave this world and you might not have time to leave behind an 11th hour message.