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Kindling Ebert

Young Roger Ebert (right) and Russ Meyer

I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, on my Kindle. The Kindle is a device I was slow to embrace. I purchased it for the same reason I buy most electronic crap – it looked cool and those I saw using one on subway appeared to have their act together more than I do. It hasn’t helped me get my act together, but I’ve been reading a bit more and I’ve made a habit of finishing one book before I purchase and download the next. The device represents one more step down the internet-based road of removing actual human contact. Way back when, I’d go to a bookstore to purchase something to read. Then I started ordering books through the mail on Amazon (along with most other things) which subtracted the human element but still ran the risk of running in to my mailman or UPS guy. Now I press a button and every chapter, page and word is stored almost instantaneously in the internal workings of a slim, sleek device. There isn’t even the human involvement of some unseen warehouse worker putting my book in a box with my name and address on it. Somehow this is all slightly less offensive than emails replacing actual conversations or letters, or Facebook as an artificial means of sustaining friendships. The words are all there, just minus the physical pages, book covers, inside sleeves, etc. Having worked briefly for a literary agency I was made aware of the cynical nature of modern publishing and that having a pretty face to put on the inside flap has, in some cases, come to match the importance of competent writing, particularly in the “chick lit” genre. The Kindle is, in some ways, a means for circumventing this fluff.

Roger Ebert’s face isn’t so pretty these days. He’s had multiple surgeries both for cancer in his salivary gland, and then to attempt to restore his appearance. The cancer treatments have been successful, although his particular ailment can never be completely eradicated and he reckons that it will kill him, eventually. But the attempts to make him look ‘normal’ again have not worked and he notes, in matter of fact manner and with no trace of self-pity, that he’s come to resemble the Phantom from the original film version of Phantom of the Opera. Ebert was never a matinee idol type to begin with, and his appearance befit his role as the nation’s most noted movie critic. He was a fat man who made no apologies for how he looked, and the combination of his weight and manner of speech and inflection gave the impression of assumed intellectual superiority. He’s always been adept with words and writing, opting for a concise, straight-forward approach that shuns flowery prose. He doesn’t hide behind his vocabulary or try to obscure any point he makes with how he delivers it, and this same eloquent and plain-spoken manner seems to help him take on subjects others might avoid. His surgeries have also left him without the ability to talk or eat, and he returns time and again in the book to fond memories of meals, food and restaurants from his past. It’s fitting in a way; as a corpulent critic his physical appearance encouraged public derision. We’re typically suspect of those who pass judgement for a living and tend to do the same ourselves when it comes to fat people. But he’s no longer fat and his physical deformities are obviously no fault of his own. Where one might have previously assumed a lack of self discipline there is now a certain admiration for his courage and desire to push forward. All that said, there’s still something a bit amusing about all his references to Steak & Shake restaurant in the book, and it would seem the old adage “once a fat guy always a fat guy” holds true.

Ebert faces other difficult truths bravely, including his lack of courage in standing up to his dominating, interfering mother’s influence on his own personal relationships and how this shaped the better part of his years. He’s understanding  when describing his own faults and those of the people who filled his life, but he doesn’t flinch either. The chapter on Gene Siskel, his long-time foil, rival, television partner, and fellow film critic, is particularly good. Ebert recounts their relationship which was marked by rivalry and competitive barbs (Siskel once famously described Ebert as resembling a ‘mudslide’ when he would don a brown sweater) but also affection and genuine connection. There was a passage I particularly liked where the two are backstage, about to appear on Jay Leno’s show, and Ebert self-consciously asks Siskel “Gene, do I look OK?” Siskel replies “Roger, when I need to amuse myself, I stroll down the sidewalk reflecting that every person I pass thought they looked just great when they walked out of their house that morning.” There was something innately touching about two guys who could rip the shit out of each other, but be there unquestioningly when the other needed assurance. Siskel died in 1999 following surgery for a cancerous brain tumor, and Ebert obviously misses him. It’s a good book; Ebert’s led a heck of an interesting life and continues to write ambitiously and enjoy things despite his current limitations. It’s a lesson even the folks at Steak and Shake could learn from.

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