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This side of Roger Ebert

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Thursday, February 18, 2010

Roger Ebert is arguably the world's most famous living film critic. In the late 1970s it was both he and Gene Siskel, two Chicago-based newspaper film critics, that hosted the television movie review show Sneak Previews. And like that, suddenly movie reviews started to become pop culture. Without Sneak Previews there likely wouldn't have been an Entertainment Tonight or today's crushing wave of celebrity/movie/television news, reviews and opinion. The modern age of infotainment -- both the good and bad aspects of it -- owes its origin to Siskel, Ebert and public television broadcasting.

By the time Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews to start their syndicated At the Movies show, the duo's rating system for a movie, the thumbs up or down, had become universally known. Since his partner's death in 1999, Ebert has continued to review movies, provide film commentary and host his own annual film festival where he interacts with his fans. In 2003 Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery. After the successful removal of the tissue, Ebert was then diagnosed with cancer in his jaw. Several operations followed, forcing the prolific movie reviewer to withdraw from the public venue of co-hosting his weekly television show with Richard Roeper but not from reviewing movies for his longtime publisher, the Chicago Sun-Times. And while the cancer may have taken away Ebert's ability to speak, eat or swallow, it hasn't slowed what he has to say about film. Indeed, while the Roger Ebert that lives in the real world may be silent, the man who speaks about movies is creating more of his writing than ever before.

In the latest issue of Esquire, writer Chris Jones profiles today's Roger Ebert. Instead of wanting us to pity what he's lost, Jones shows us a man who is at no loss to discuss what moves him about filmmaking. "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," writes Jones in his seven-page article on the Esquire site.

In the about-to-become fifteen years that I have been writing about movies, I've never had the opportunity to meet Roger Ebert. I know that the man knows of Coming Attractions; he had linked to the old CA several times and said nice things about it. I recall that, shortly after I took the original Coming Attractions offline back in 2003, someone related to me a story by a reader of the site. That person had been so upset that CA had disappeared that he wrote to Roger Ebert to ask if he could do something about it. A not-so-tiny part of me did the emotional and mental equivalent of a gulp when I found out that Ebert had actually answered the question. In his reply Ebert told the fan that it was my choice to do with the site what I wanted to do with it; that was the way life works and instead of being angry and upset about losing something you loved, instead remember it but don't dwell on its absence. It strikes me that Ebert's long-ago answer to that fan of the old CA, made around the time his cancer was first diagnosed, also mirrors his unbroken spirit about his own life. I don't know if I would be able to feel or act like he does in the face of his adversity but he's not letting it stop what he's the best at doing. To me, that's the mark of one's passion, and not just for life but for living.

These days, when I think of the name Roger Ebert, the definition of who he is and what he represents has changed at the quantum level. The Esquire article provides an excellent view of that man as he exists today.

Roger, if you ever get the chance to read these words, I've got two things I'd like to say to you: thank you for loving movies the way that you do and thank you for being a role model for a human being. Reason number two is always more important but reason number one is pretty cool, ain't it?

-Esquire.

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