Roger Ebert – Words On Bone

Daniel House

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Ebert in Esquire

By now, many if not most of you have already been made aware of – if not have already read – the extensive February 16th article from Esquire entitled Roger Ebert: The Essential Man. A reference perhaps to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” the song that Ebert purportedly played repeatedly while in his hospital room after one of the many cancer surgeries that he’s had to endure since his first one in 2002, the article is a moving and bittersweet account of a man whose contribution to the world of film is immeasurable.

I first became aware of Roger Ebert in the late ‘70s, when he and Gene Siskel, his partner for over 20 years went into national syndication with their Sneak Previews show on PBS.

Roger Ebert can no longer speak

For me, their show was essential viewing, intelligent discussion about film, and not just the mainstream movies of the day, but also the obscure underground art-house films that could only be viewed in some of the larger cities across America. I was going to Berkeley high at the time, was a terribly shy teen, and spent a lot of my free time going to movies – usually by myself. We had the UC Theater, one of the early Landmark Theater screens, and they played a different double feature pretty much every night. I could be found there three or four nights (or days if on the weekend) during any given week. Each week however, I would always try to make sure that I was somewhere with a TV nearby when Sneak Previews aired. As much as was possible I would never miss a show.

Ebert’s commentary – his words – about film were an essential part of my filmic diet, a veritable classroom doled out in weekly portions, something to be relished. Regardless if I agreed or disagreed with either of the critics, their discourse would invariably spark the critic within me. Their weekly discussions about various films and their relative merit helped to make me a more critical thinker, and ultimately a more astute and critical viewer of film. Keep in mind this is a guy who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a film critic, back in 1975, years before he was on TV!

In 1981, I moved to Seattle. The following year Siskel and Ebert moved to network television, and extended their reach to mainstream audiences. I continued to watch Siskel and Ebert review and debate movies until Siskel’s death in 1999, and continued to tune in to Ebert and his new partner Richard Roper who was his co-host until 2006. My love for film never subsided, and throughout, Ebert was a constant voice, one that I did not always agree with, but one that would invariably give me some new perspective to consider. I thank him for that.

Now his battle with cancer has taken his ability to speak. His entire lower jaw has been removed: The bone that was once there is gone. He cannot eat or drink; he has no voice, no spoken voice anyway. As a writer however, he is more prolific than ever, and since 2008 (when in the midst of a particularly bad fight with cancer) Ebert has been chronicling his experiences and thoughts in a blog that has – as of the writing of the Esquire article – surpassed half a million words!

In the article, Ebert writes: “When I am writing, my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was.” I read this, and I read it again. I am stunned. He is 67 years old. He has devoted his life to the things he’s loved the most, has honed his craft and continued to sharpen his creative self, and when dealt with a blow that would take the juice out of pretty much anybody I can think of, he finds the sweet nugget and savors the little thing that makes it special. His cancer is in a state of remission, and hopefully it will never return. I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through the ordeal that Roger Ebert has had to endure, but through it all it appears that he has managed to keep his focus, and somehow he has managed to find joy in the things that make his life rich.

This is not a lesson on film, but it is most certainly a powerful lesson in life.  As trite as it may sound, I think we can all do better to learn to let the petty shit go so that we can more fully appreciate the small things that make our lives rich. I will certainly do my best find inspiration in the sweet nuggets.

Read Ebert’s Response to the Esquire Article

See Ebert’s 323 (and counting) Greatest Movies of all Time (alphabetical)

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