Let us all give a solemn but heartfelt two-thumbs up for one of the greatest and most influential careers in critical film thinking. (But please be careful Gene and Roger have it trademarked, can’t escape royalties anywhere these days…)
On April 4th, 2013 legendary writer/journalist/critic/Chicagoan/film-nut Roger Ebert passed away quietly and peacefully. As the disheartening news trickled into the media ether, the true impact of the loss could start to be felt. In the coming days and weeks epitaphs, stories and accolades will be passed around by the people he helped inspired, warmly and graciously, about this most humble and deserving of a man. It would be an honor of great prestige to be one of the first to start that trend here.
I feel that this was the time to get back to writing. I haven’t written an article or review in months for a variety of reasons that I won’t be getting into, that’s not important right now. Let’s get to what is of importance: the beloved movie critic’s influence on myself and many thousands upon millions of others that share my passion. For myself, and I suspect millions of others, Roger Ebert was a seemingly ‘gatekeeper’ into high appreciation of the film medium. Be it either entertainment, high-art, or both. It was on the weekly show Ebert and Roeper (formerly Siskel and Ebert, due to another tragic death of the equally critical and insightful Gene Siskel) that I began to develop my taste in movies by comparing and contrasting my own views on the movies the two would review together. As I found out (and am continuously finding out), I was only starting to see the very tip of an infinitely large and densely complex iceberg.
Through his numerous writing formats, (i.e essays, reviews, blogs) he made me understand the bigger picture of this great wondrous visual world of cinema. Though I would disagree with him at times (His reviews of Knowing, Full Metal Jacket, and Minority Report come to mind) I was nonetheless always enthralled by his perspectives and reasoning, but above all he made his thoughts and ideas accessible to anyone willing to give him the time of day. Never writing with smugness or over-analytical wording that would lose casual readers. He wasn’t what some would call a film “snob” either, he liked the entertainingly bad ones (Congo) just like the historically good ones (Citizen Kane). He knew that there were audiences for the high-brow and the not-so high-brow tastes for movies. It was the ones right in-between that he had a problem with, as he always liked to say.
He was seemingly the happiest while sitting in the opposing chair, as it were, discussing the art he cherished. Whether that be with his long-time ‘sparing’ partner and friend the late great Gene Siskel, the myriad of other critics that joined him in the critiques or whoever happened to be around him at the time. Always ready to offer a contradictory gripe or adding to the praise being bestowed. The man just loved his job, even if some of those movies made him want to quit his job (She’s Out of Control and North to name a few). It is telling that despite losing his voice and failing health he continued on, never wavering always continuing to get his opinions out whichever way he could. He had a job to do and he saw it through to the very last days of his life.
So here I am, writing all about film just as he did all his professional life, so what does that mean to me? Plenty. I stated earlier that Ebert was my gatekeeper into this strange new world; where a director can bend time itself to their will, an actor can convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt that he/she IS a completely different person, a wordless scene can say everything to you and one can feel emotions, thoughts and connections that had never previously been expressed. There is powerful magic at work here and he was my first mentor making me fully aware of it all. Was it all because of his words? Well, yes those did convince me somewhat, but moreover it was his passionate zeal for these images moving at 24 frames/sec that got me to realize what we have here. What was the lovable, round, bespectacled person rambling on-and-on about? Why did he care so much?
My first ‘review’ (unofficially on FaceBook Notes… yep) was for Scorsese’s whimsically vibrant Hugo released a couple of years ago, in it I said how movies are our time machines. As they can transport an audience into a train station in 1920’s Paris, but movies perhaps more importantly help to reflect the times they are made in. Movies made today are nothing (some might say unfortunately) like those from a decade ago, go back further through the decades you will see the effect compounded. I would like to assume that films are going to be this century’s version of cave-drawings, what we leave behind for generations beyond to glimpse at a certain point in history (finding something better, like holograms, not withstanding). Perhaps I overstate cinema’s importance to the world at large. But if not for these reasons, there are other reasons that make film mean so much.
I personally have never had a profound emotional connection when I was say listening to a song, reading a book, watching a play, or viewing a painting. Movies on the other hand are a different story. In fact, just the other day, and I’m not ashamed to admit, I was greatly moved… by Kung Fu Panda 2. Now, how in the world could the exploits of a talking-cartoon-panda-marital-artist get to me? Put simply, (at least for me) emotions/feelings/thoughts connect better by what we are ‘made’ to see, not ‘choose’ to see. Reading through scenes in a book can be dulled down by how we imagine them to be, our imagination also controls how we perceive music in our minds, and we can turn our eyes to any part of the stage or canvass: the focus can be anywhere. Film on the other hand, sure the great filmmaker’s will leave a little imagination in there for the audience to fill-in, but the images, scenes, faces, and dialogue that are imprinted with us are all right there on the screen in front of us. The filmmaker’s shape everything that we are made to see on-screen. In effect, we are glimpsing into the complete unfiltered vision of someone else (be it a director, cinematographer, writer or an actor). That friends is undeniably powerful, to see through the eyes of another person. It is why film is so indelible in our minds. It is not my intention to belittle the other mediums, they are very important as well in the nurturing of minds. It is just film seeks to do something different entirely. I’m rambling at this point I know, but I only wish to do what Roger Ebert always wanted to inspire others to do: discuss.
He didn’t summarize what he had just seen, he told you how he FELT about what he had just seen. Therefore, I’m only telling you how I feel. So, it is a fond but bittersweet farewell to a fellow Chicagoan and Film-nut. The balcony is now closed… but we’ll be seeing you at the movies, Roger, always in spirit. I’ll keep that aisle seat open…