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Tag: john updike

Million Dollar Movie

Guest Post

Our pal Pete Richmond remembers Roger Ebert:

Unlike many of my social-media colleagues who were lucky enough to meet Roger Ebert, I never did. I only knew him a while back as a guy on a TV show, with another guy in the other chair, presuming to tell me whether a movie was good or not. He and Gene Siskel’s relationship had a comforting vibe, but I, a bristly pseudo-artist-critic from the City of New York, home of the Yankees uptown and birthplace of Damn Yankees downtown, with Woody’s Manhattan somewhere in between, I always felt as if I were being ever-so-slightly lectured by an ever-so-slightly professor about a subject far too subjective to be bandied about by a couple of Midwestern white guys. (On top of which, the thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing creeped me out: flashes of the emperor in his Coliseum luxury box deciding the fate of a gladiator, on a whim.)

Truth is, I never decided whether to go to a movie because of what Roger Ebert said about it. What could a guy for the plodding Trib know about the essence of a film, its nuance, its art? Real movies only aimed to capture the hearts and minds of we sophisticates on the East Coast (the Philistines who made them out in Lemming Angeles? As if.) But Carl Sandburg’s big-shouldered meatpacking town telling me whether Terrence Malick and David Lynch were frauds or geniuses? Please. Canby! Kael! Real salon-sambuca-sipping Critics! The Second City could teach me a lot about architecture…but movies?

Then I grew older, and the world grew snarkier, and Siskel died, which was sad-making, but still, if their pairing had made for such immortal TV, why go on with the show with a replacement? Roger and the other guy lost me for good.

And then, in 2010, a few years ago, apparently long out of the loop, I read about Ebert’s health. About how thyroid cancer had left him with no jaw, and after three reconstructive surgeries had failed, leaving him looking grotesque, he refused to try any more, because, in his own words, “This is what I look like.” He said he thought that as a culture we are very bad at dealing with sickness, and, in one fell swoop, he did a whole lot to change that.

And then I read that he was a master chef, even though he could not taste – indeed, took nutrition through a tube. And that while he couldn’t talk, he had a text-to-message program that allowed him to give interviews. And I started paying more attention to his movie reviews, He saw 306 movies last year.

And no, he wasn’t the best movie critic out there, not by any means. He was not Anthony Lane (although he was better than Denby, if I have to flash my prejudices.) But he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t attitudinal. He never let his ego get in the way of his criticism.

And when he announced yesterday that he was taking a Leave of Presence, because cancer had reappeared, but he announced about 11 different other things that he was going to be backing, I thought: Man, you did it. Ill, you’ve aged gracefully. Here comes a third act that the rest of us will admire, and enjoy: Selfless Roger Ebert projects all over the place: an arsenal of artistic sanity in a world gone angry.

Then he died. And I instantly knew what was up with that prolific message that had offered 24 hours earlier so much hope for the future: He was subtextually telling us: “This is the possibility of the future of what I have envisioned, but won’t see. A day or so from now, I’ll be gone. I hope you guys will take some of the good I hoped to create, express and exemplify, carry on.” Unlike any other writer (except for Updike), he didn’t even hint that he was on his way out. No one has ever died with more grace. We owe him this: to look at the insane good fortune with which we’ve been blessed, and to go to the movies.

The Gift of Gab

I love to talk but when it comes to writing I have learned that you can talk too much. You can talk a story out before you’ve finished–or started–writing. Some talking is good because it helps formulate your thinking but I’ve discovered that it can go too far.

Talking comes naturally. When I was younger I talked because I was anxious, talked because silence was terrifying. But talking also runs in the family. My twin sister loves to talk. My old man was a champion talker. He loved the sound of his own voice. He talked instead of working. (Maybe that is why I am attracted to but mostly repulsed by Fran Lebovitz.) On the other hand, my mother walked the walk; she was pragmatic, a worker, not a dreamer.

I got to thinking about talking when I read this piece on James Agee by John Updike, a review of “Letters of James Agee to Father Flye”:

Alcohol—which appears in the first Harvard letters (“On the whole, an occasional alcoholic bender satisfies me fairly well”) and figures in almost every letter thereafter—was Agee’s faithful ally in his “enormously strong drive, on a universally broad front, toward self-destruction.” But I think his real vice, as a writer, was talk. “I seem, and regret it and hate myself for it, to be able to say many more things I want to in talking than in writing.” He describes his life at Harvard as “an average of 3.5 hours sleep per night; 2 or 3 meals per day. Rest of the time: work, or time spent with friends. About 3 nights a week I’ve talked all night. . . .” And near the end of his life, in Hollywood: “I’ve spent probably 30 or 50 evenings talking alone most of the night with Chaplin, and he has talked very openly and intimately.” And what are these letters but a flow of talk that nothing but total fatigue could staunch? “The trouble is, of course, that I’d like to write you a pretty indefinitely long letter, and talk about everything under the sun we would talk about, if we could see each other. And we’d probably talk five or six hundred pages…”

He simply preferred conversation to composition. The private game of translating life into language, or fitting words to things, did not sufficiently fascinate him. His eloquence naturally dispersed itself in spurts of interest and jets of opinion. In these letters, the extended, “serious” projects he wishes he could get to—narrative poems in an “amphibious style,” “impressionistic” histories of the United States, an intricately parodic life of Jesus, a symphony of interchangeable slang, a novel on the atom bomb—have about them the grandiose, gassy quality of talk. They are the kind of books, rife with Great Ideas, that a Time reviewer would judge “important.” The poignant fact about Agee is that he was not badly suited to working for Henry Luce.

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