Saturday, June 22, 2013

'Don't fake it'

Get this.

You're down in Georgia, there to meet not just a movie star, but an American icon. He walks up to you in combat fatigues, looking every bit as big as his 6 foot, 4 inch frame. Although he's known to millions around the world, he sticks out his hand and smiles.

"John Wayne," he says by way of introduction, as if you didn't know.

Such was Roger Ebert's life.

Don't feel too well tonight. I think I've caught some kind of stomach bug. So, instead of making medicine with my buddy Matt Shelton -- I'm sure we would have screened yet another good bad movie -- I'm at home, finishing up Ebert's autobiography, "Life Itself."

Sometimes you don't realize just how much a person means to you until they're gone. That's how I feel about Ebert.

He was always there, on TV, bickering with Gene Siskel and, later and less successfully, with Richard Roeper; guesting on Carson or Letterman; ubiquitous with those two thumbs up (or down!). His movie reviews showed up in my email inbox about 9 a.m. every Friday, like clockwork.

Even after surgery silenced his voice, he was still there, tweeting and blogging away. I thought he'd live to be a hundred.

And then he died.

That weekend -- I'm sure I told you about it -- I watched "Citizen Kane" complemented by Ebert's commentary. And, you know what? A movie I've seen at least 20 times, discussed, enjoyed, mused over, loved, hated, taught to a high school class, learned about from UT professor Chuck Maland -- despite all that, Ebert taught me things I'd never noticed. Such was his gift.

Shelton has a collection of reviews of movies Ebert despised. One night, prompted by peer pressure and potent potables, I read a few of them in William Shatner's cadence. They are classics. Especially the one about a doomsday movie. Is it "Armageddon"? Bruce Willis on an asteroid? Anyway, it's a masterpiece.

In "Life Itself," Ebert writes about his Midwest childhood, about losing it at the movies, about newspapering in Chicago with Mike Royko and a true cast of characters, about drinking too much and sobering up, chatting on film shoots with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, musing on mortality with Martin Scorsese.

As usual, I've collected a list of films to watch. Scorsese's first picture. Ebert's infamous attempt at a screenplay, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Bergman's "Face to Face."

And you know what? He taught me something about writing that I've always believed but never heard verbalized.

"Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don't fake it."

I've always tried to write conversationally, sharing a story, telling the truth. I don't think readers are dumb. I think they can spot phony a mile away. But nothing sells like sincerity.

Leave it to Roger Ebert to say it best. He always did. 

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