I spend a lot of time in the dark with men who are not my husband and my favorite companion for this type of extramarital (and purely professional) fun happens to be also the and wisest and wittiest, Roger Ebert. Or, as he is also known: Ro-jay Ay-bear. That’s how Mme. Cagnat, proprietess of Cannes’ Hotel Splendid, pronounces the name of her favorite annual guest, for 40 years movie reviewer of the Chicago Sun-Times, his city’s civic memory, ardent cinephile, lucid film historian, keenest of critics, belle-lettrist of astonishing breadth and depth and possessor of the most powerful digits in the universe. When homo habilis developed the prehensile thumb, little did he know how eloquently Roger would deploy his.
Despite the thyroid cancer first diagnosed in 2002 and the subsequent surgeries that brought him, as he put it, "within a breath of death" in 2006, much to the delight of millions of readers, he kissed off the grim reaper. While medical complications did spell the end of his television show, "At the Movies" (fact: Rog and the late Gene Siskel hosted the program for 24 years, meaning that they were a team longer than Laurel & Hardy together for 18), something good came of something bad: His writing over the past two years surpasses even his own high standards.
Go to his essential website, rogerebert.com, and read his thoughts on "elevation" in the movies. Elevation is the psychological phenom, thought to be connected with the stimulation of the vagus nerve, that triggers those lump-in-throat, full-heart, radiant feelings of happiness.
As Jonathan Haidt, the professor who coined the term, describes it, "Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration."
Is there a better description of the salutary effects of Roger's writing?
Herewith, the valentine: How do I love thee, Roger? Let me count the ways:
1) For your indispensable reviews, founded on the tenet that "it’s not what a movie is about but how it's about it."
2) For your contagious movie love, and the elegance with which you express it.
3) For your lucid glossary of film tropes, i.e. "Bullitt Shift: Cars in hgh-speed chases can shift through more gears than they have. Cf., BULLITT, where Steve McQueen's car upshifts more than 16 times."
4) For your critic's rules to live by, including: " Provide a sense of the experience. No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard."
5) For your gift in conveying complex ideas -- and theories -- in layman's terms.
6) For your advice to a then-young critic after you saw her pontificate on television: "Honey, remember on TV it’s Ok to put back in all the clichés you edit out in your writing."
Here's hoping that Roger's lovely wife, Chaz, will let him be my valentine. (Pssst, don't tell my husband.)