Although The Oprah Winfrey Show isn’t usually my bag, I taped and caught up with
its pre-Oscars episode featuring Roger Ebert last week. Ebert and his wife, Chaz Hammel-Smith Ebert, visited to discuss his long battle with cancer and longer battle with that battle’s complications — and to debut a new computerized voice specifically designed for the now-mute Ebert using nearly 30 years of television appearances as reference.
When my health made it difficult for me to get out much and my finances were fairly literally nil (a set of circumstances that I can’t entirely relegate to the past tense) I frequented Borders. Sometimes I would arrange to meet friends there, it being a good destination for browsing on my part and theirs in case I was early, late, or unable to make it. Sometimes I would stop in for a respite among errands. Sometimes I would make it a destination unto itself, to soak in the social atmosphere and seasonal music
or decorations even if I wasn’t up to actual interaction; plus, of course, I enjoyed browsing the books.
As I said, I had no money to spare; I also had trouble reading. In my post “The Slog”
I wrote about how trouble concentrating made it hard to write. I had to all but re-learn how to read, as well, and if there was one thing that defined me in life more than writer it was reader. Short and simple nonfiction as in magazines was easiest, thankfully, so that I could keep up with news and reviews — the latter often, masochistically, purely for vicarious purposes. I spent a long time at the level of young-adult fiction, such as the early Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl books, too, occasionally trying and failing at more complicated prose. Luckily, I lived next door to a library for three years. And when I went to Borders, I got into the habit of sitting down with the latest edition of Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook, splurging on a coffee beverage now and then so as not to totally freeload.
Media and literary criticism have intrigued me at least since college, when I spent a little too much time paging through library books near the ones I actually needed to read for research — at first innocently, if the index or table of contents or flip test didn’t turn up what I was looking for (no World-Wide Web back then, kids) and something else grabbed my attention; soon enough in dereliction of duty, although I could argue that an afternoon of even the most fascinating insights into Shakespeare needs to be spelled with an essay on self-referentialism in sitcoms. I discovered Pauline Kael in those stacks, and started reading Harlan Ellison’s television essays on a friend’s recommendation. I enrolled in Film Studies courses. I began writing, chiefly about comics, for professional publications and the campus newspaper.
So Ebert’s collections were the perfect comfort during those trips to Borders, as were older editions of the Movie Yearbooks that I picked up at used-book stores to read at home. The reviews were a good length, and that they helped me pick out video rentals was almost an incidental bonus; if I never got to see what Ebert was writing about, well, I was staying informed, and should a subject be totally foreign (not in the international sense, but unfamiliar from TV publicity and my very limited Internet browsing at the time), I simply looked at those reviews like Borgesean examinations of imaginary works.
Ebert and Gene Siskel’s television shows had also been a touchstone in my life, and when Siskel died it felt personal in a way that some deaths of media figures strangely do. I slowly warmed up to Richard Roeper and his dynamic with Ebert, only to have Ebert’s own cancer change the equation again several years ago and, eventually, lead to the end of the first, best version of that Sneak Previews / At the Movies format of two knowledgeable film critics facing off with passion and erudition. Differences between Ebert and the show’s distributor meant the withdrawal of usage of his and the Siskel estate’s Two Thumbs Up trademark and then the replacement of Roeper and worthy foils like fellow print men A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips with just another shallow imitation of the original. Following a year of that dreck, Scott and Phillips came aboard as official hosts of At the Movies, and for some reason it quickly disappeared from the Philadelphia market; I gave up on the website soon after when it proved incapable of finishing an entire segment, let alone a whole episode, before going totally spastic.
Whether Ebert’s print reviews and essays would have the same resonance with me absent his familiarity from television I can’t say, but the affection I feel for the man certainly owes itself to both. Shortly before the Eberts appeared on Oprah, Chris Jones’ intimate portrait ran in Esquire; Roger wrote a coda of sorts reflecting on the piece for his online journal, a wide-ranging, often moving series of essays which is truly great reading. One of his’s latest journal dispatches reflects on Variety’s firing of its chief film critic, Todd McCarthy; I had forgotten that McCarthy directed the absolutely stunning Visions of Light, a documentary on cinematography that you should rent and view on the best screen possible.
Clips of a day in the life of the Eberts and Roger debuting his personalized computer voice for Chaz are available at the Oprah website, although the studio segments with Winfrey don’t seem to be. If you ever get to see that episode, even absent an affinity for the man like mine, your eyes are guaranteed to moisten.
Related: The Slog • Roger Ebert 1942-2013 • Myth and Fingerprints