AndyO Blog

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert and me (updated)

Today I heard the sad news that Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. Ebert is one of my favorite writers, and his voice will be missed. Here's Ebert's final work, "A Leave of Presence."

As my own tribute, I'm also reposting my blog from June 12, 2011, "Roger Ebert and me":


Originally posted on June 12, 2011

I've always been a fan of Roger Ebert's writing. I still remember the day in the 1990s when I was browsing his movie review book in The University Bookstore in Seattle, and I read his review of Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover. I had absolutely hated the movie; it had almost made me physically ill. But then I read Ebert's review. Here's the passage that made me realize I didn't know anything about this film:

So. What is all this about? Greenaway is not ordinarily such a visceral director, and indeed his earlier films ("The Draughtsman's Contract," "A Zed and Two Noughts," "In the Belly of the Architect") have specialized in cerebral detachment. What is his motivation here? I submit it is anger--the same anger that has inspired large and sometimes violent British crowds to demonstrating against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax that whips the poor and coddles the rich. Some British critics are reading the movie this way: Cook = Civil servants, dutiful citizens. Thief = Thatcher's arrogance and support of the greedy. Wife = Britannia Lover = Ineffectual opposition by leftists and intellectuals.

� I think "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover" is more of a meditation on modern times in general. It is about the greed of an entrepreneurial class that takes over perfectly efficient companies and steals their assets, that marches roughshod over timid laws in pursuit of its own aggrandizement, that rapes the environment, that enforces its tyranny on the timid majority--which distracts itself with romance and escapism to avoid facing up to the bully-boys.

Needless to say, I bought the book. And I continued to buy them about every year. (This was before the Internet, where you can now read Ebert's reviews online.) As I read through his reviews of four-star to one-star movies, I started to see film in a different way. Ebert brought an amazing amount of knowledge to his film reviews. In many ways, Ebert became my film professor.

When I would tell people of Ebert's clear writing and insight, some would laugh and say when they watched him on TV they thought his reviews were off the mark. They would said they liked Siskel better. But then I'd tell them I wasn't talking about his TV show, I was talking about his writing (for which he'd won a Pulitzer Prize). Such is the power of television.

My wife also started reading Ebert's reviews. She made the interesting observation that his reviews evoked the feeling of the movie. Somehow, whether a movie was good or bad, Ebert could get at the heart of the movie through his writing.

Then, for some odd reason, I decided to thank Ebert for his work. I was able to do this thanks to the CompuServe account at my work (a competitor of AOL in the early days for those who've never heard of CompuServe). Ebert was on CompuServe, and you could write directly to him. So I did.

A day or so later, Ebert wrote back personally. I have a copy of that exchange somewhere.

As the years went by, I continued to read Ebert's reviews -- either in his annual review books or on the Internet. (He was also part of Microsoft's Cinemania CD-ROM project, which a friend of mine worked on.) Ebert's reviews were a voice that was always with me.

Ebert's world changes, and so does mine

In 2002, Ebert began a long battle with cancer. Being caught up in my own world of kids, job, and marriage, I didn't hear anything about this -- except when a friend mentioned he'd heard Ebert was sick. During his sickness, Ebert continued to review movies. But then on July 1, 2006, Ebert's carotid artery burst, a side effect of the radiation treatment. He almost died.

I was still totally unaware of Ebert's condition. One day I saw an interview that Leonard Maltin did with Ebert, and the man who was supposedly Roger Ebert didn't look anything like him. He also couldn't talk. I had no idea what had happened to him.

It was around this time I started following Ebert on Twitter, and through his blog, Ebert wrote about his condition after surviving cancer and near-death. I learned that he couldn't eat or drink anymore (in addition to losing his voice). I was surprised that he said he didn't really miss eating or drinking anymore:

What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They're the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of our recreational talking. That's what I miss.

Shortly after this blog entry, an Esquire article appeared that detailed Ebert's new life, as well as his ordeal with cancer and near-death experience. Starting off the article was a photo of Ebert, his lower jaw gone, mouth drooping. It was a courageous thing to share all of that with the world. 

I was so moved by the article, I commented on a post Ebert wrote about the Esquire article, with1000-plus comments (and, once again, Ebert responded):

By Andy Olson on February 19, 2010 7:52 PM


I wrote to you once before -- on CompuServe of all places -- about 15 years ago, to thank you for the insight your movie reviews brought to me. To my delight, you actually wrote back to me.

And now I feel compelled to write to you once again to say, "Thanks."

The article in Esquire, and your commentary about the article, was an interesting window into your world. I realize now I've always heard your voice through your writing (and it's different than your voice on TV). And while I know things have changed for you, the voice I've grown used to is still there -- and is stronger than ever.

Ebert: Compuserve was like a little private club in those days. All of 4 million members.


posted by AndyO @ 7:32 PM   2 comments