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Roger Ebert: A Man Transformed

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This week legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote a poignant essay of sorts in response to a recent Esquire profile on him. The article by Chris Jones, which appears in the most recent issue of the magazine, details what life has been like for Ebert since having his lower jaw removed due to the spread of thyroid cancer. He has undergone a series of operations since 2003, and, since 2006, he has not been able to eat or speak. One thing he has not lost, however, is his mind and his other motor functions. That’s why his writing has been so prolific in recent years.

When reading one of his reviews, it’s the same ole Ebert. His ability to write is most certainly giving the Pulitzer Prize winner a new lease on life. In the article, Jones observes:

We have a habit of turning sentimental about celebrities who are struck down — Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve — transforming them into mystics; still, it’s almost impossible to sit beside Roger Ebert, lifting blue Post-it notes from his silk fingertips, and not feel as though he’s become something more than he was. He has those hands. And his wide and expressive eyes, despite everything, are almost always smiling.

‘There is no need to pity me‘, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. ‘Look how happy I am.

6a00d8341c630a53ef01310f1ec3bd970cOn the first page, the editors at Esquire displayed the image at left as full page spread. In his response essay, Ebert voiced praise for the piece, even the hard-to-take-in portions:

“When I turned to it in the magazine, I got a jolt from the full-page photograph of my jaw drooping. Not a lovely sight. But then I am not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, well, what the hell. It’s just as well it’s out there. That’s how I look, after all.

Ebert went to describe a quote that his wife, Chaz, originated:

‘Resentment is allowing someone to live rent-free in a room in your head’…

I mentioned that it was sort of a relief to have that full-page photo of my face. Yes, I winced. What I hated most was that my hair was so neatly combed. Running it that big was good journalism. It made you want to read the article.
I studiously avoid looking at myself in a mirror. It would not be productive. If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive. Low self-esteem involves imagining the worst that other people can think about you. That means they’re living upstairs in the rent-free room.

It’s inspiring that Ebert, in a condition that is hard to fathom as a man who’s still able to eat and speak normally, has not given up. Not even that — he has written more essays and reviews in the past few years than in his entire career. I grew up reading his stuff. I particularly remember thumbing through his Four Star Movie Guide often when I was younger (maybe ten years old). I had found it at a used book sale and it inspired me to seek out such wonderful films as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Halloween and Nashville. See such classics as a kid was better than any film school.

Is Ebert the most accurate or eloquent of all the critics. Probably not and he doesn’t claim to be. What Ebert has, though, is a pure love of film and an honesty in his writing that so many other critics lack. He’s not afraid to be self-deprecating and admit when he’s off base. That being said, he’s also not afraid to stand by his authoritative opinion no matter how much of a minority he’s in (everything from his positive review of 2008′s flop, The Women, to his negative review of David Lynch‘s classic, Blue Velvet).

Considering the modern crop of film critics, where the trend is be snappy, quotable and as fast-paced as the editing in a Michael Bay flick (case in point: Ebert’s first replacement on At The Movies, Ben Lyons, a guy who had no credibility and no end in his love for I Am Legend), it’s important to have voices like Ebert’s. Sure, he always had that trademark “Thumbs Up” gimmick, but he admitted on numerous occasions that he didn’t particularly care for that gimmick. It was a way for producers to market him and fellow critic, Gene Siskel.

The truth is that Ebert is, and always was, in it for the love of film and not anything else. And he found a way to translate that passion and make intelligent criticism more accessible to the masses. If that means that one more person will see a film by Robert Altman who otherwise wouldn’t have, then he should be very proud. He certainly had that effect on me.

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