Reflections on a Closed Balcony

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“The Balcony is Closed.”
Roger Ebert, 1942 – 2013
Credit: Twitter via Salon.com

I’ve been trying to hold on to some personal thoughts about Roger Ebert, who died a week ago this past Thursday. I first wrote about Mr. Ebert back in 2010, after finding his exhaustive and popular blog, and its prolific original content and visitor commentary.

The reaction to his death has been significant and heartfelt from across a broad landscape of the national consciousness. If at least one online commentator is to be believed, it seems as if history is prepared to remember Mr. Ebert with the same regard that it holds other observers of the American condition, such asMark TwainH.L. Mencken, and Will Rogers.

For me, I was a teenager growing up in Sewickley when books and the movies provided a gateway to other places and situations that I was only too happy to lose myself in. I really wasn’t aware of Roger Ebert, even though he was busy winning his Pulitzer Prize at about the same time.

Mr. Wheat and his theatre were still a community staple back then, but the nostalgic charm of the drive-in and the bombast of the multiplex sounded the death knell for little places like his – or so we thought. The Ambridge Family Theatre has been a special place for many years, and the prospect of a new theatre in Sewickley holds hope for the continued emergence of the Village as a place that teems with possibilities.

Roger Ebert has a lot to do with that, over and above his signature turn as Gene Siskel‘s partner and foil on PBS for all those years. Ebert championed the creative and artistic richness of such seemingly obscure film types as documentaries, independents, and Japanese animation.

The resulting increase in interest in “smaller”, independently-produced films has helped to sustain those older movie houses that have specialized in showing these and other films.

There are several local examples of this, including the Hollywood Theatre in Dormont, which featured prominently in one of the most engaging films made in this area, and one which Mr. Ebert recommended highly  – The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As for me, I got to see “Rocky Horror” in all its glory at the old Kings Court in Oakland.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers has also established a successful network of venues for these purposes – and appears to be poised to add Sewickley to its list of locations. Let’s hope they don’t get lost in pretentiousness, and decide to have some fun with it as well.

In the age of DVDs and Internet streaming, when people would seemingly be content to retreat to their homes or tablet devices to watch a movie, Ebert put a great deal of personal capital into the potential that social media and online communities offered those with an interest in film, other passions that Ebert expressed in writing, or both. What remains is an impressive collection of commentary by Mr. Ebert and a variety of associates.

I’ve been touched by much of Mr. Ebert’s volumes of writing on several topics, as well as some of the tributes that have appeared in the wake of his death. Here are a few:

An excerpt from his memoir Life Itself, titled “I Do Not Fear Death“:

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

His commentary for the DVD of Citizen Kane – full of insights and love for what Ebert admitted was his favorite film.

His now-famous skewering of Rob Schneider, who deserved it…

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– Krishna Shenoi

Ebert corresponded and established meaningful relationships with numerous people of all ages and walks of life. One example is reflected in the above drawing, with a link to an accompanying blog post.

Another is a recent column in a public relations trade publication, by a PR executive who began exchanging letters with Mr. Ebert while in junior high school. There are numerous lessons that this professional marketer tries to impart as part of the example Mr. Ebert set, including this most telling one:

Ebert’s illustrious career mirrors society in profound ways – and it’s no accident that with the changing landscape of media and with his own failing health, he adapted into one of the most avid social media practitioners of our time. He was steeped in two-way engagement long before its mainstream popularity, and he fully leveraged the medium to stimulate great ideas and engage in intense conversation. 

Ebert may have been reduced by illness to someone without a speaking voice, but leveraged the virtual world to gain a lasting presence in it. He was very astute about marketing his product – himself. As a result, there is that much more of him that is left to study and enjoy for generations to come, and a legacy of succession is in place to assure that his beneficial impact on his craft will be a lasting and substantial one.

This must have not been an easy thing for someone such as Ebert, who in his writing seemed to espouse being alone as much as he enjoyed connecting with others. He overcame the spectre of alcoholism, fought back against the ravages of cancer, and while not always on the right side of everyone (who can be?), earned the respect that he got.

He was able to adapt to the times and the attitudes…

When I was a child the mailman came once a day. Now the mail arrives every moment. I used to believe it was preposterous that people could fall in love online. Now I see that all relationships are virtual, even those that take place in person. Whether we use our bodies or a keyboard, it all comes down to two minds crying out from their solitude.

He was most fortunate that he found a loving, equal partner, who he loved deeply and who was there for him.

Ebert saw the Internet as a “godsend” for those, like him, who were unable to connect to others by virtue of debilitating diseases. Yet he also saw the inherent value of relationships that resist a connection to everyone, all the time. This excerpt reads to me like bullet points for building a healthy relationship in later life. The emphasis is mine:

Why do people marry with no prospects of children? Babies are not the only thing two people can create together. They can create a safe private world. They can create a reality that affirms their values. They can stand for something. They can find someone to laugh with, and confide in. Someone to hold them when they need to be held

He then concludes this same paragraph with an admonition: A danger of the internet would be if we begin to meet those needs without feeling there has to be another person in the room.

Roger Ebert made a considerable life for himself by understanding and leveraging transformative media – motion pictures, television, the Internet – while showing us at the same time how to live an intimate, graceful existence, especially in the face of personal challenges that bordered on the extreme.

He was active, lucid, and relevant to the end – what more can one hope for in life?

It’s ironic that his example should represent for me a re-evaluation of all things online, but it does. It’s time for an adjustment or two.

See you at the movies..

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