Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert

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Kevin Winter / Getty

Film Critic Roger Ebert

(5 of 5)


In the year since last June, Roger, who has fought good fights for so many others, now had to fight for himself. The cancer that had troubled him for a few years returned, and he endured months of operations, complications, confinement. He missed the Toronto Film Festival in September, and might have skipped Ebertfest if he hadn't learned that all tickets sold out within a few days of their becoming available. His fans needed him as much as he needed to get better.

First, he had to prepare the Ebertians for his depleted appearance. "To paraphrase a line from Raging Bull, I ain't a pretty boy no more," he wrote in a pre-festival note on his website. "What happened was, cancer of the salivary gland spread to my right lower jaw. A segment of the mandible was removed. Two operations to replace the missing segment were unsuccessful, both leading to unanticipated bleeding. A tracheostomy was necessary so, for the time being, I cannot speak. I make do with written notes and a lot of hand waving and eye-rolling. The doctors now plan an approach that does not involve the risk of unplanned bleeding. If all goes well, my speech will be restored. So when I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck, and my mouth will be seen to droop. So it goes.

"I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks.... We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look now. But I'm not going to miss my festival."

There's no word for Roger's determination but heroism. His appearance at Ebertfest had the impact of the climax from some inspirational movie — of the triumph over daunting odds and the public display of steely humanity — except that it's still the beginning of his recuperation. It was a heartening and therapeutic event, not only for Roger and Chaz but for the audience who had learned so much from him.

For Roger knows that, whatever else they may be, movies are stories people tell us; and a review is a conversation the critic has with both the filmmaker and the audience about the power and plausibility of the tale. No one has done as much as Roger to connect the creators of movies with their consumers. He has immense power, and he's used it for good, as an apostle of cinema. Reading his work, or listening to him parse the shots of some notable film, the movie lover is also engaged with an alert mind constantly discovering things — discovering them to share them. That's what a great teacher does, and what Roger's done as a writer, public personality and friend to film for all these years. And, dammit, keep on doing.

So here's a wish for a continuing recovery, long life and happy birthday week to Chicago's, and the movies', Mr. Chips.

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