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Roger Ebert

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 10, 2013.

I never met Roger Ebert, but I talked with him once, briefly, on the phone. He had called KGNU to do an interview, had called early and his interviewer was still on the air. We exchanged eight words, total, near thirty years ago. Which is to say, we were as brothers.

He died last week. It was not surprising. He'd had cancer, lost his jaw, voice, ability to eat years back. He broke his hip, discovered cancer had returned and this time it wasn't intermission, it was the end credits and he reportedly went with a smile. I want to believe that, I would of anyone, but I can suspect it was an arranged suicide to deprive those he loved of a long, horrid experience that would not be as bad as what he faced. I don't know whether I'm ashamed to say that was the first thing I thought of. I know I hope it is true, and that he went easy. He'd been a Catholic, and was buried as one, but I've read he'd kissed all that away a long time back.

The thing is, like a lot of people, I was surprisingly hurt and sad to hear Ebert was gone. On television for so long, discussing things that were of interest to me, primarily what movies to miss, Ebert became a virtual friend. His reviews did not all follow my tastes and opinions, but as with all friends I had experience with his and could judge accordingly. He was remarkably consistent in his opinions and you could count on him, subject to interpretation.

He saw way too many movies, though. As a result he didn't react to them as most folks do, and got involved with trivia that was reflective of knowing all the templates and devices mediocre movies employ and all the tics and spasms that were utilized by the actors who were in them. If you hadn't seen Al Pacino in all his movies frame by frame you were more likely to be impressed and entertained by his lesser works. I was, for example. Ebert educated me, and I learned something about both acting, seeing too many movies, and myself and my often irrational reactions to certain scenes and actors. It was not always elevating or pretty, but as a friend of sorts - we spoke on the phone, did I mention? - Ebert was consistent and informative.

It's hard to fathom how Ebert became so beloved. He started out writing a movie for pornographer Russ Meyer, and Ebert mourned his death in print and wrote amusingly about their time together. It's not like Ebert was a porn performer who tried to go legit, like some actually talented women and men have tried to do, but porn is still not viewed as a stepping stone, and is not, in practice, very supportive of liberal or feminist values. Yet, Ebert seems to have suffered near zero penalty and moved comfortably into being progressive politically and emotionally as his experience with movies expanded. The times he emerged from were crowded with good, great, and many movie critics. How did this tubby become a beloved icon?

He was a deceptively good writer. He wrote clearly in simple sentences that nonetheless provided the periodic memorable one liner. I blame the Jesuits. He did. He was not petty. When he felt himself becoming so, he announced it and dealt with it in print. He was positive. When he admired or loved an artist or their work he was not shy about announcing it as he felt it. And, if he hated it.....

I never saw, for example, the Brown Bunny, a movie Ebert said was the worst he'd ever seen at the Cannes Film Festival. Vincent Gallo, who made it, called Ebert a fat pig, eliciting an exchange of Christmas cards.

Soon, Gallo went back in and edited 28 minutes out of the film but leaving in a sex scene that had been controversial, and imagined as ruining the career of the well regarded actress who performed it and suspected of offending Ebert. Ebert reviewed the shortened film on his program and gave it three out of four stars, and in this form it is considered by some one of the best movies of 2004. The actress has suffered no huge penalty, is on broadcast television and film a lot. If true, that's a good example of a constructive critic playing a role in actual art. If not, it's still a good story.

Roger Ebert was always a good story. Well done and hail!