Esquire’s Article on Roger Ebert   Leave a comment

This week, I was really emotionally moved by Esquire's article on Roger Ebert. I specifically remember having the link sent to me at work, but I was unable to read it at work because it was blocked. The next day, as I was sitting waiting for the Max trains to take me to work, I pulled it up on the Android phone. It was actually a good thing that I ended up having to wait 3 trains before there was one that would take me to my stop: not only did my eyes brim with tears, but I had to reach for a tissue several times. Even as I rode the train and tried to compose myself since I would be soon in a work setting, and even now several days later, the article, and the man whose story is told in the article, still resonates in my psyche.

Most people know Ebert from his show with Siskel, and growing up in Chicago, they were the only local celebrities I cared about. I probably couldn't be able to recognize any of the players from the sport teams (well, ok Michael Jordan) if I saw them in real life, but Siskel and Ebert were regulars for me. I liked how they talked through their opinion in a fashion that was both entertaining but also made me be more analytical and critical of movies. It's all too easy to take entertainment at face value, and just passively be told a story. Siskel and Ebert, combined with my high school history teacher who wisely made us read conflicting historical accounts to try to find the truth in the past, taught me to be an active engager of life by thinking and processing all the time, not just because I was asked to write an essay for homework should you turn your critical thinking skills on.

I remember the shock when Siskel passed away from his brain tumor. I admit, as the quiet one of the pair, Siskel's serious, more controlled demeanor was closer to what I was like at the time, so I usually paid more attention to him then Ebert, who to me was more the funny foil. One week he was reviewing movies seemingly as normal, and then he was gone. After Siskel's passing, although they found another critic to replace him on the show, I never really had that same trust with Roeper, and Roger Ebert became my go-to critic for movies. Literally, he was the only one I trusted in the media.

I still read the Chicago Tribune now daily, even though I live in Portland instead, but I started going to the Sun Times just for Ebert's movie reviews. The way he looked at movies actually is much closer to how I enjoy/do not enjoy them then Siskel's thermometer, I later realized. When he critiques a movie, he starts with giving it the benefit of the doubt, and he covers all the elements: the story itself, the characters, the performances, the atmosphere of the set, etc, picking it apart like a novel. I haven't found any other critic with that depth and consistency of really trying to understand what a movie is trying to do.

My main contact with Ebert was online, and I was focused on his movie reviews. So I didn't know how his health had deteriorated until I was linked to his blog article "Nil by Mouth" in January. I remembered vaguely seeing photos of him thinner, but I had no idea that he had lost his ability to eat or drink or speak. That particular blog was something I had probably passed by in navigating to movie articles many times, but I had never read one until then. As he went through some of his food memories, and then wrapped up with how it wasn't eating he missed, but dining, he with that one entry changed from being a critic in my mind to a person. I am anxiously awaiting Amazon alerting me to his book on using a Rice Cooker and thoughts on why people cook to be available.

What the Esquire article brought to me was moving him from a person to an inspiration for me. He has dealt with pain and struggled certainly with a strong will, done so admirably. And the ability for that much insight to be lifted from shadowing Ebert as a writer for just a day says a lot for the technique of being able to step into a man's shoes and follow him to get that perspective, something people don't even try to do anymore- time's short, let's just ask questions and get it done. There's so much more to a man then answers to questions or even what he might say or how he might describe himself. Even those two days were only a short capture of Ebert, and Chris Jones is a wonderful writer and able to really see what he is observing: but Ebert has many days, not just those Chris saw, which he lives every day, day after day into weeks and years. And, he lives it so fully.

The article mentions how "Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it." As he pointed out on his blog response to the article, all of us are doing that everyday, so it's not that he sees himself as a daying man. But given his current constraints, Ebert rallies even without his voice and without the ability to physically even spend a lot of time out among others, to live and communicate to the highest potential he can manage, so he can share his life view from experience and his analysis of life as he continues to absorb human stories.

He could have tried to just retire from the world and public stage, but instead, he expresses himself and opens himself even more, continuing with bringing perspective to stories told by movies in reviews, and also with his blog and conversations from comments all over the world on that blog. Without the casual freedom of the spoken word available to him anymore, now you can really see the value to him of weighing his time to still produce those communications, to still try to be heard and share the echoes in his mind, but truly forced into picking what has the most meaning to tell. You can appreciate that when you are limited to what you can express, how you must select what of yourself you want share and still be understandable. You can appreciate something we all take for granted, what a treasure communication is to humans that we waste away so often and don't use nearly as carefully, spending it on posturing or putting up a front to impress or entertain or deflect or win, but not nearly as often open the door of yourself to another.

The article gives you a glimpse into someone who you wish could share that depth of thought and experience with more of the world because it is so penetrating and so hard to find now with the roar of other chitter chatter in all types of media that is so shallow in comparison. The voice of society seems to have become that of the young and nice to look at, or about internal fighting politically or of public opinion, rather then the words of wise men, and it's a great loss. And, he's just one example among probably so many great life stories that are not known and should be.    

I can also see the care in time and emotional investment that he's made into his relationship with his wife Chaz. It's evidenced in the small joys they still have now that he needs more care and and she fights for him so exquisitely, be it to force him to push himself physically or to help him express himself. He can't speak anymore, but all the communication and understanding between them is still there in ways that they have learned together over time in small gestures and facial expressions and even her just knowing him so well because they are so bonded as independent but a couple.

And as I said before, he is heroically inspiring me to remember to always think actively, and enjoy and appreciate every little bit of life that is thrown at me
or that just slips in and might not be noticed otherwise. Ebert seems to be someone who is not only self-aware of himself, but of his life and life in general, and not in a way that is sentimental or religious, but as someone who knows how to sift to find all the diamonds, even the smallest diamonds in so much rough of life, and cherish them and let the rough dirt go by without staining him. He is willing even now with less physical capacity to continue to scrounge around in as much dirt as he is able, continually looking for more of the sparkles in life. He does so all with an open heart and letting his emotions be as they are, not trying to pretend they aren't there or control them, but letting them exist sincerely, and feeling their ebbs and flows because that also is what life is. Despite being trapped by his physicality, Ebert is a free man, and he is more alive and active then so many people, sadly, because they don't have someone like Ebert to have shown them that you need to live like this, and be in awe and gratitude for all the little and large communications, of one person reaching for another and the connection, that make life worth living.

I dare you to read that Esquire article and not be moved.

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Posted February 20, 2010 by pechluck in Uncategorized

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