Friday, February 20, 2009

Mr. Ebert

There are a few writers whose work I read even when I have no interest in their subjects, just because I know they'll have interesting things to say about them.

For example, it would be very difficult for someone to care less about sports than I do and still produce testosterone, but there are a couple of sports columnists whose work always draws me in and makes me care about jai alai, curling, or something or someone I never knew existed five minutes before. When I see their pieces I read them, and they rarely let me down.

I'm a fan of the newspaper columnist Miss Manners, Judith Martin, not because I have a passion for fish forks, but because I think she's just a good writer, with a wry, dry, understated wit that I envy. Miss Manners is one sharp cookie; you can tell she'd think and write humiliating rings around you, if only she weren't too polite to do so.

The Pulitzer-winning film critic Roger Ebert falls into that category for me as well. Of course, I read his reviews when they're about movies I might want to see, but I also read them when they're not. Sometimes those are the best ones. Mr. Ebert says he judges a film not by what it's about, but how it's about it. In his view, there can be good kiddie flicks and bad kiddie flicks, good slasher films and bad slasher films (and, I suppose, good pornos and bad pornos). In all cases, he's looking for talent, craft, originality, ambition, style . . . and, I infer, some sense of a creative mind at work, solving problems and having fun. Personality.

Happily enough, that's how I approach him and other writers, too. It's almost irrelevant to me what they're writing about. If they do it well and right, they'll make me care and bring me along for the ride. Nobody reads Hemingway to pick up fishing tips.

A few years ago, Mr. Ebert took ill with thyroid cancer, which eventually caused the removal of his salivary glands and pieces of his jawbone. He nearly died and was disfigured by the surgery. As he describes his situation, his cancer is in check but he can no longer speak or eat. However, he can still write. In fact, in addition to continuing his film reviews, he's become a very prolific blogging essayist, and, though your tastes may not match mine, I have really enjoyed his pieces.

Some are as simple as an ode to a rice steamer. Again, the secret is not what it's about but how it's about it. On one level, it's a man sharing his favorite recipes. On another, it's a man writing about the experience of savoring food in a way he never will again. The reader doesn't have to know that going in, either; Mr. Ebert is a considerate enough writer that he provides everything you need. "To be sure, health problems now prevent me from eating," he writes. "That has not discouraged my cooking. Now cooking is an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion."

Some of Mr. Ebert's essays are about movies or travel, and they're good. Others are the melancholy reflections of a man who knows his days are numbered (as are everyone's, but his perhaps a smaller number than others'), has suffered and knows he will suffer more, and is determined to face it as squarely and unsentimentally as possible. They're very good.

In his latest post he remembers his late colleague Gene Siskel, but also suggests, I think, how he'd like to be remembered himself. In another post about his health problems, he writes, "I am so much a movie lover that I can imagine a certain (very small) pleasure in looking like the Phantom [of the Opera]. It is better than looking like the Elephant Man. I would describe my condition as falling about 17% of the way along a graph line between the handsome devil I was at the tender age of 27, and the thing that jumps out of that guy's intestines in 'Alien.'" Another looks hundreds of billions of years into the future, into a universe that's forgotten Shakespeare and language itself--not to mention the scribblings of a newspaperman named Ebert--and mulls over the idea of immortality, wondering what will happen to all the words. Yet another is one of the best meditations on the joys of being a reader that I can recall.

Tastes vary, and I know some people who don't hold much regard for Mr. Ebert as a critic or a writer, but I think this is just fantastic stuff. I look forward to every new essay. Even when they're just about rice steamers, they often move me. Not every piece at will sing for you, but I'll bet enough will to make a visit worth your time.

1 comment:

ronnie said...

Thank you! I am a great fan of Roger Ebert's writing (also Miss Manners', coincidentally, for the same reason you are) and was ever so happy when he had recovered enough to revive the "Answer Man" column in which he replied to readers' comments. I had no idea he had a blog and I have bookmarked it.