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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Roger Ebert


The film blog community was abuzz this week with an article, written by Chris Jones, in this month's Esquire on Roger Ebert, sage of movie critics. I actually subscribe to Esquire, and got my copy in the mail and read the article the old-fashioned way on Friday night. It is a beautifully wrought examination of a brilliant man who has suffered numerous health problems, and now can not speak, eat or drink. But he is thriving.

I have been a fan of Ebert's since the first time I saw him, and I can pinpoint that moment almost to the day. I was in my dorm room at school, looking for something to watch on my portable black and white set, when I stumbled across Sneak Previews on PBS. I don't think I had heard about the show, but here was an intelligent discussion between two movie critics on new movies. I was hooked, through the duo's various iterations, until Gene Siskel's death in 1999. I remember that one of the movies they discussed was the otherwise forgettable Frank Sinatra film, The First Deadly Sin, so as I check it's release date I see I must have been watching around the first of October, 1980.

Since then, almost thirty years ago, my admiration for Ebert has steadily grown. I always favored his approach to criticism more than Siskel's--Ebert seemed to apply more rationality, while I thought Siskel went off half-cocked much of the time. Still, they made for great television, and their love/hate relationship has become something of legend. But Ebert branched out and ended up writing about many more topics than Siskel had a chance to. He has become one of the great representatives of secular humanism in America today, and he frequently voices the definitive statements in resistance to the Neanderthal right, whether it be on Darwinism, health-care reform, or the colorization of black and white films, that I wish I were eloquent enough to articulate. I find myself in agreement with him (on matters unrelated to the quality of a certain a film) almost one-hundred percent of the time. I could simply follow him around, repeating, "What he said."

In fact, of all the people alive today, Roger Ebert is right up at the top of those I wish I could consider a personal friend. And in a certain sense, I am, since the man is so forthcoming in his new career as Internet town crier. His loss of speech, resulting from surgeries to combat cancer of the salivary glands, has given him full-throated voice on the Web. He Tweets voraciously--sometimes my home page on Twitter is full of his missives, whether he is retweeting what he finds interesting or succinctly, in the 140 characters allowed, refuting the idiocies of Rush Limbaugh and the like. His Journal is one of the best reads anywhere to be found on the 'Net, with his remembrances of walking in London, the myriad uses of a rice cooker, or the old watering hole frequented by his newspaper cronies in Chicago. He is also remarkably democratic, reading and responding to the hundreds of comments he gets, and being willing to reconsider a position he takes, a remarkable attribute in this day and age of foolish certainty.

Ebert, as we could have expected, has responded to Jones' article, citing it was well-written. The article had an elegiac tone, but Ebert wants us all to know he is not dying any faster than any of the rest of us. As he puts it, we are all dying incrementally. Though we can wince a little when we see what the ravages of the operations have done to his face (he also broke a hip during the ordeal), we can be immensely cheered by the sublime happiness of his marriage to his wife Chaz and the unstoppable love of cinema he still has. My favorite part of the article was Jones' description of his attending a screening of Almodovar's Broken Embraces: "He radiates kid joy. Throughout the screening, he takes excited notes...Ebert scribbles constantly, his pen digging into page after page, and then he tears the pages out of his notebook and drops them to the floor around him. The lights come back on. Ebert stays in his chair, savoring, surrounded by his notes. It looks as though he's sitting on top of a cloud of paper."

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