Tuesday, March 02, 2010


"I've never said this before but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert."—Roger Ebert

In the wake of the theatrical release of Shutter Island, it stands to follow that the cover article of this month's issue of Esquire would feature Cal Fussman's interview with Leonardo DiCaprio. However, when I reviewed the issue, the piece that most caught my attention—and which moved me quite a bit upon reading—was Chris Jones' revelatory profile of Roger Ebert:
"The Essential Man", which I'm delighted to say is now available online at the magazine's website, along with additional photography by Ethan Hill. As value added, Ebert has selected what he considers one of his best-written pieces for Esquire: his 1970 interview with Lee Marvin.

As chance and other choices would have it, just as I was drafting this announcement, I received word from the San Francisco Film Society that Roger Ebert will receive this year's Mel Novikoff Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (April 22-May 6). The award, named for the pioneering San Francisco art and repertory film exhibitor Mel Novikoff (1922-1987), acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema. The Novikoff Award will be presented at "An Evening with Roger Ebert and Friends", Saturday, May 1 at 5:30PM at the Castro Theatre. Confirmed guests to date include directors Jason Reitman and Terry Zwigoff, with others to be announced soon.

The program will close with a screening of Julia, touted by Ebert as one of the finest films released in 2009. Erick Zonca's character-driven thriller, starring the fearless Tilda Swinton, barrels straight into the sleazy wasteland of an abrasive alcoholic kidnapper who is in way over her head.

"It's an honor to pay tribute to a man who has enhanced the public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema for more than 40 years through his writing, television shows, Web site and film festival," said Rachel Rosen, the Film Society's director of programming. "His passion for film is an inspiration."

Here are a few excerpts from the Esquire article that inspired me.

"His new life," Jones writes, "is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing—it's like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It's not the food or the drink he worries about anymore—I went through a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note—but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn't exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning." (2010:121)

"Ebert's dreams are happier. Never yet a dream where I can't talk, he writes on another Post-it note, peeling it off the top of the blue stack. Sometimes I discover—oh, I see! I CAN talk! I just forgot to do it. [] In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn't get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can't quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he's never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole. [] These things come to us, they don't come from us, he writes about his cancer, about sickness, on another Post-it note. Dreams come from us." (2010:121)

"He took his hardest hit not long ago. After Roeper announced his departure from At the Movies in 2008—Disney wanted to revamp the show in a way that Roeper felt would damage it—Ebert disassociated himself from it, too, and he took his trademarked thumbs with him. The end was not pretty, and the break was not clean. But because Disney was going to change the original balcony set as part of its makeover, it was agreed, Ebert thought, that the upholstered chairs and rails and undersized screen would be given to the Smithsonian and put on display. Ebert was excited by the idea. Then he went up to visit the old set one last time and found it broken up and stacked in a dumpster in an alley." (2010:164)

"Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it. [] I know it is coming and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled 'Go Gently into That Good Night.' I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris. …I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." (2010:165)

Photos courtesy of Ethan Hill and Esquire. Cross-published on

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