Friday, April 5, 2013

And that's a wrap, folks: Remembering Roger Ebert

In the Mood for Love was a bit of an over-hyped affair if you ask me. A lot of people who are familiar with Wong Kar Wai's work rank it as one of the best films about love and loss ever made. And yet, when I finally got done to watching it in the internet centre at Nalsar with a friend, we were left a bit puzzled. It sure looked pretty, and we supposed there was something to be said for the hypnotic score, but in the end it felt mostly like an overlong snooze fest.

Disgruntled and feeling our faith in humanity's cinematic tastes fast eroding, we went straight to Roger Ebert's review of the film. It begins with the lines "they are in the mood for love, but not in the time and place for it". That felt about right, as right as a later line - "the thrust of Wong's film is that paths cross, but intentions rarely do". Reading these lines, retrospectively improved the film we'd watched. Finally we got to the point where Ebert notes - "Lovers do not notice where they are, do not notice that they repeat themselves.  It isn't repetition anyway - it's reassurance. And when you're holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires".

And with those words, we felt In the Mood for Love transforming before our eyes, edging past the endlessly repetitive sequences we'd been exasperated by, and becoming a better, more worthy piece of filmmaking. In about 700 words, Ebert had managed to salvage a movie for us, had given us something legitimately beautiful that we could take away from it.

Weeks later, the same friend and I were watching Charlie Kauffman's  Synecdoche, New York back in the internet centre (we sure watched a lot of movies there).  This time round, we hadn't heard much about the movie. As we reached its brutally unflinching ending, we sat in silence, watching the end credits roll, not quite being able to articulate our thoughts. We knew we'd seen something astonishing, but how to adjectivize this emotion, how to frame it within the strictures of language?

And again, Roger Ebert came to our rescue: "We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain food, shelter, clothing, mates, comfort, a first folio of Shakespeare, model airplanes .... whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call "me", trying to brand ourselves a  person who can and should obtain these things.

In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them .... Hold that trajectory in mind and let it interact with age, discouragement, greater wisdom and more uncertainty. you will understand what Synecdoche, New York is trying to say about the life of Caden Cotard and the lives in his lives".

What made Ebert stand out from so many other critics, what initially drew me to his writing and made me seek out his reviews, was the manner in which he necessarily gleaned the best out of a movie. Where just about every other major critic seemed to be more intent in ripping apart film after film, pausing for breath at the Oscar lineup, Ebert was finding the good in  the movies left by the wayside.  He notes in his 4 star review of Romance and Cigarettes how it stands at 33% on the Rotten Tomatoes meter because "so many timid taste mongers have been affronted by the movie". Not him though - for him, Romance and Cigarettes was, "the real thing, a film that breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic liberty. The actors toss their heads and run their mouths like prisoners let loose to race free". His hearty endorsement got me and my friends to watch what is one of the most enthralling musicals of all time, one that also manages to sneak in a scene of Susan Sarandon using the word "whoremaster".

Of course, sometimes this fervent need to see the good could go too far. I am baffled by his review of Prometheus where he terms it a "magnificent science-fiction film, all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn't have the answers". And to call The Golden Compass "a darker deeper fantasy epic than the Rings trilogy or the Potter films" is just ... I'm still trying to frame an adequate response to that gaffe. Then there were the times when he could really bring the sarcasm - his review of Valentine's Day tells us: "Valentine's Day is being marketed as a Date Movie. I think it's more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date".


Ebert came to gradually define the way I watched movies.  I recall a glorious period of time where I could see no wrong in cinema, where I'd forgotten the bitter sting of disappointment because I could just somehow focus on the parts of the film that worked.  Sometimes I was more Ebert than Ebert himself. I will admit, for instance, to actively enjoying portions of Valentine's Day. And I don't just mean the bits with a shirtless Taylor Lautner, which, come on, even Ebert probably enjoyed. 

Lately, the Ebert in me has been fading, slowly replaced by someone more cynical, perhaps more discerning.  There is a set of criteria that my mind forces onto every movie it watches, and if it is unable to stand up to those standards, I am unable to defend it.  This doesn't fill me with any sense of pride or joy, and it is often frustrating. It is the reason why I am unable to be enthusiastic about The Dark Knight Rises, even with its somewhat exhilarating final hour, and why I couldn't quite heartily endorse Life of Pi even though there were parts of it that took my breath away.

Losing Roger Ebert means the loss of  one of the most enthusiastic cinephiles of our time. In his writing, there was droll wit and autobiographical verve. There were wonderful  insights into a life lived in the service of cinema. There was a desire, a need that leapt out from the written word, to ensure that you got up and watched that film he was recommending to you, everything else be damned. As his health began to fail him, there was sadness, extended reflections on mortality creeping more and more steadily into his writing.

Always, always, there was an unabashed love for the cinematic medium and its myriad possibilities.

So Goodbye Roger Ebert, and thank you so very much for letting me into your world for so many years. As I consider the prospect of not having a new review of yours to look forward to, I will think of the words of my friend Lawrence: "Three thumbs down". 

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