Roger Ebert: The Essential Man (Chris Jones, Esquire)

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man (photo by Ethan Hill)

I just finished reading Chris Jones’ marvelous story on Roger Ebert from February 16th. It is touching and beautiful both in subject and structure; funny, intelligent, insightful, totally Ebert, and though I’ve never read any of his other work, totally Chris Jones. Excerpted below is my immediate favorite portion. I am guessing there will be more when I return, which I will.

Ebert’s work has always meant a lot to me. As a writer new to the film review game during my freshman year at Indiana, I wrote my reviews first  and then immediately read his. I couldn’t read his first because I loved them so much and didn’t want his wonderful words affecting mine.

Just with this brief introduction, I can already feel my own need to write 600, 850, 1000 words on Ebert and his work. So I will stop now and leave you with Jones’ remarkable story, as well as links to three of my favorite Ebert reviews, one for his humor, one for his refusal to write a straight review if a movie has not earned it, and one for his own passion and insight.

From Chris Jones’ Esquire story, “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man”

Gene Siskel taped his last show, and within a week or two he was dead. Ebert had lost half his identity.

He scrolls down to the entry’s final paragraph.

      We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled “Best Enemies.” It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.

Ebert keeps scrolling down. Below his journal he had embedded video of his first show alone, the balcony seat empty across the aisle. It was a tribute, in three parts. He wants to watch them now, because he wants to remember, but at the bottom of the page there are only three big black squares. In the middle of the squares, white type reads: “Content deleted. This video is no longer available because it has been deleted.” Ebert leans into the screen, trying to figure out what’s happened. He looks across at Chaz. The top half of his face turns red, and his eyes well up again, but this time, it’s not sadness surfacing. He’s shaking. It’s anger.

Chaz looks over his shoulder at the screen. “Those fu — ” she says, catching herself.

They think it’s Disney again — that they’ve taken down the videos. Terms-of-use violation.

This time, the anger lasts long enough for Ebert to write it down. He opens a new page in his text-to-speech program, a blank white sheet. He types in capital letters, stabbing at the keys with his delicate, trembling hands: MY TRIBUTE, appears behind the cursor in the top left corner. ON THE FIRST SHOW AFTER HIS DEATH. But Ebert doesn’t press the button that fires up the speakers. He presses a different button, a button that makes the words bigger. He presses the button again and again and again, the words growing bigger and bigger and bigger until they become too big to fit the screen, now they’re just letters, but he keeps hitting the button, bigger and bigger still, now just shapes and angles, just geometry filling the white screen with black like the three squares. Roger Ebert is shaking, his entire body is shaking, and he’s still hitting the button, bang, bang, bang, and he’s shouting now. He’s standing outside on the street corner and he’s arching his back and he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.

Ebert the humorist: Armageddon, 1998

Ebert the absurdist: Four Christmases, 2008

Ebert the film lover: Do the Right Thing, 1989, his 2001 “Great Movies” entry

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