Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Big 'Thumbs Up' for Roger Ebert (and his new book: The Great Movies III)

I can't remember the last time I paid full price for a new hardcover book. And to do so for a book from which I can easily read virtually the entire contents online for free may seem especially foolish and unnecessary, particularly for someone without a regular job.

But such is my eminent esteem for Roger Ebert that when I saw that he would be signing copies of his new collection of film essays, The Great Movies III--I already own volumes I & II, despite being able to access the essays on his great website--at the Barnes & Noble in Old Orchard in Skokie on Thursday night, I made a point of going. And as buying the book there for $30 was the only choice if I wanted him to sign it (even though it's available for about a third less on Barnes & Noble's website), well, pony up I did.

And even though I had Roger personalize my copy--thereby ruining any possible re-sale or auction value--I feel absolutely no compunction about doing so.

Because not only do I so greatly admire Roger and cherish having a tome of movie essays autographed by him, but especially as I have evolved in my exploration of film (which you can read about here), Ebert and his writing have greatly expanded my understanding and appreciation. Just today, I watched a beautiful 1974 German film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and followed it by reading Ebert's piece on it in The Great Movies I (and available here, although just because you can get something for free doesn't mean it's not worth buying).

This past April, for the first time, I attended one day of Roger's annual Ebertfest--comprised of overlooked films he favors--in Champaign-Urbana. You can read my recap here, in which I also tried to articulate why my fondness for Roger Ebert goes far beyond his role as movie critic, especially as he has battled thyroid cancer which has robbed him of his ability to speak and, as he had repeatedly joked, his "good looks."

As I mentioned to a Northwestern journalism grad student who was at the signing and interviewed me--as well as to the lady in line next to me, up to the point that Roger himself interrupted and shook my hand as he made his way to the book signing table--without his voice Ebert now speaks louder than ever. Going far beyond reviewing the latest movies, he writes at length about myriad topics through his online journal and in frequent Facebook and Twitter posts.

I absolutely loved when he shared this photograph on Facebook a few weeks ago, just because he came across something he liked, and agree with most of his well-reasoned, left-leaning political/societal commentary. I think it's cool that Roger Ebert was born on the exact same day as Paul McCartney--June 18, 1942--and in addition to being a huge Beatles fan, like me, he's also an ardent admirer of Howard Stern, of whom he tweeted on Monday: "Howard Stern is the best interviewer in the business. He asks everyone what you really want to know."

Aside from liking what Roger writes, writes about, what he cherishes, the courage he has demonstrated and the views he espouses, Ebert also means a lot to me simply by being one of the last remaining vestiges of an era of Chicago--and local media icons--gone by.

From Ebert's longtime TV partner, Gene Siskel, who passed away in 1999, to people like late longtime newspaper columnist Mike Royko and sports anchor Tim Weigel, even Steve Dahl who is off the air in radio limbo-land, most of the local media stars who kind of defined Chicago when I was growing up have passed--or at least moved--on. And, not only as a consequence of the Internet age, there doesn't seem to be stalwarts of quite the same ilk to have taken their place.

When I was about 14, I wrote to Ebert and Siskel requesting an autographed photo and received back the one at right (I did likewise for Steve & Garry (Meier), Weigel and a few others). As you can see, I've kept it in pretty good condition after all these years. And though I expect to put The Great Movies III to much greater use, I will likewise cherish having Roger Ebert's John Hancock on it. For as I've hopefully expressed amidst this rambling, it symbolizes a lot more than the signature of America's most famous movie critic.

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