Friday, April 5, 2013

Farewell then, Ebert

It came as a mild shock to me when I logged onto Facebook today morning to find tributes to Roger Ebert. RIP Ebert. There was no sinking feeling in the stomach, like it was when I learnt about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Peter Roebuck, probably because Ebert was old and visibly ill, but I will miss him more palpably. I don't really remember when I discovered Ebert's site but it didn't take me long to realise that I had found a goldmine. Just the magnitude of the archives made me gasp. This man had reviewed films for 46 years, covering an unprecedented number of film reviews, 306 was apparently his highest in one calender year, not to mention his revisiting of classics for the newer generation of film audience to appreciate.

Ebert loved film. It was right on the surface. And he was a very good writer in his own right. He escalated film review to an art form, winning the first Pulitzer for a film reviewer in the process, and imbibing into millions of readers like me the craft of watching and appreciating film. Just a few days after I discovered him, it became a habit of mine, more of a motor-reflex thing, as soon as I'd heard of a movie, to punch in the keywords, 'Roger Ebert review' and trust the man blindly. It is actually a testimony to his love for movies because more than 90% of the time when I googled his film review for a more or less acclaimed film, I found it. He watched them all.

Ebert had a phenomenal eye for talent, especially young, indie filmmakers who had an original voice. He wagered his word on directors like Scorsese, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Aronofsky while they were still blips on the film circuit. It is partly thanks to him that their careers are where they are today because viewers like me trusted his judgement and made an effort to give them a chance. Ebert's reviews are lessons for aspiring filmmakers, critics and film buffs. Unlike the cheap, so-called-reviews, that give away the plotline and dissect the movie into various departments, rating them individually, his reviews treat a film as a whole. More like a fully functional, breathing entity that has its own pulse, mood and tempo. When he didn't like a film, he was honest about it. Witty and tongue-in-cheek in an effort to downplay its worthlessness. But when he liked a film, or thought the director had potential, he was effusive in praise. He never held back, but was always polite. He didn't talk about actors, he talked about acting. He lived films, but never more than life.

In an age when film reviews are bad pieces of literature where people care only about stars or gossip, Ebert's was the one voice that treated a film with respect, love and awe. There are quite a few internationally acclaimed reviewers, whose views are respected, Travers, Lane, Zachenek, Denby, but they intellectualize films too much for my liking. In their effort to show off they encyclopedic knowledge, they come off as too haughty or unapproachable. Ebert, on the other hand, reviewed each film for what it was. Yes, he made comparisons, unraveled subtexts, and quoted other artists, but he gave every film a chance. A chance for it to grow on him, to surprise him, to suck him in and to inspire him. And that reflected in every one of his reviews. He sympathized with bad films but lashed at lazy ones. He revered originality, ostracized cliches. Was a film's most vocal supporter when he found potential but also it's harshest critic when it was mediocre.

Ebert, atleast as it seemed to me, believed that a film was a director's medium. He talked about acting, and other technical departments, like music, cinematography and editing, but always came back to trying to understand the director's vision. He loved films that were personal, idiosyncratic, kinetic and visceral. And the ones that had rich background stories lurking beneath the surface. Not that he didn't like other films, he was far too in love with them not to like even the worst of them, but I thought he enjoyed movies that were brimming with life. And he also had a great weakness for well written dialogue, writers like Allen, Schrader, Sorkin, Tarantino, who created weird characters and put phenomenal words in their mouths. Oh, this guy loved films.

Thank you Ebert for leaving us with so much to cherish. I will miss your reviews for the films you will never see and I will remember you every time I come across a film that you might have liked. But mostly, I will miss you for the conversations I had with you every time I read a review of yours. You have taught me how to watch films and learn from them. For that, and for all the hours we've spent discussing films, I'll always be grateful.

an EbertFan.

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