Friday, April 05, 2013

Thumbs up

Back in the dark ages, sometime around 1990 I guess, my friend Dave Kerner got on the kick of asking people a classic question: Who is the most famous person to have shaken your hand? I said Jimmy Carter, who passed through Syracuse when his Presidential campaign was just starting in 1975. Dave said Buzz Aldrin, I think. I even used the question in a a couple of Sabres' media guides.

I think there's now a 21st century equivalent of that question. Who is the most famous person to have sent you a personal email?

My answer would have to be Roger Ebert, whose death was announced on Thursday.

Some years ago, I had watched the movie "Ali" with Will Smith. As a sports fan, I was very familiar with the Ali story to the point where some of the historical inaccuracies jumped out at me, and it spoiled the effect of the motion picture a bit. Ebert had his website fully up and running, and took questions from readers.I wrote and briefly recounted my experience, and asked the question, "Can a little too much knowledge about a subject spoil a biographical film?"

To my surprise, within about two days there was an email from, yes, Roger Ebert. He wrote, "I think it can. But remember, no person's life comes as a movie. RE." The right answer.

Ebert's life as a critic had more than one act. The first was when he was a newspaper critic in Chicago, and the Pulitzer Prize might indicate he was pretty good at it. Then Ebert started doing a PBS show with rival critic Gene Siskel, with its now-familiar thumbs up or down rating system. Around that time, I guess, he started publishing annual books that served as collections of reviews, and we all got to see his long, thoughtful reviews of movies. Ebert's enthusiasm always came through. If a movie was a dud, well, the next one had to be better - a line stolen from "Ed Wood" but one that is appropriate here.

When the Internet came along in the 1990's, we could start reading both Siskel and Ebert on line. As I recall I never saw a review from Siskel that was longer than a few paragraphs. Ebert's reviews were always better in terms of going into depth and exploring the subject thoroughly. Those reviews eventually piled up on Ebert's own website, where they served as a great resource for picking out good movies past and present. Even the loss of his voice through cancer couldn't silence him; he just kept communicating with us as he always did, through his words. Ebert's death hit with the peculiar feeling that comes with the loss of someone who you've never met, yet feel as if you know him well enough to feel a certain level of personal sadness.

It's tough to guess who will fill Ebert's niche when it comes to film criticism. Those are impossible thumbs to replace.

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