Sunday, 25 May 2014

What Roger Ebert Did For Me

This is my opinion, a thought-piece, if you will. It is not a review of anything, it is a transcription of my thoughts, about Roger Ebert. If this doesn't interest you (and believe me, I would understand if it doesn't), then please stop reading here.

As I write this, I find myself listening to a TED talk where Roger Ebert, his wife Chaz and close friends talk about the nature of voices, why we use them, how we use them, their importance, and what it means to talk. It was some years after Roger Ebert had his operation, for cancer, to remove his lower jaw. It saved his life, but it removed his ability to speak. Luckily, he was living in the 21st century, where Apple computers come equipped with robotic voices and you can more or less type out anything you want to say and it will be received, as is (I could be mute, and none of you reading this would know). Such is the nature of communication in the global age; in this respect, Ebert was very lucky, and indeed he looks positively over-joyed simply to be present at that talk.

It's a truly heart-warming video. He is a man full of love, and surrounded by love, and it comes through. But the video has made me think.

I would not be here were it not for that man. The reason I write, the reason I watch films, the way I watch films, and the way I write about films, all come from him. I have never really given much thought about the nature of role-models, or someone to aspire to, but sitting here, writing this, I have now come to the conclusion that if I am to choose one role-model, then it would be him. Not a day goes by when I don't visit his website, his Great Movies articles, or YouTube some review or other that he did in his days with the Siskel and Ebert review show.

What set him apart from just about every other film critic, or culture critic, or person I know, was his compassion. He was a man filled with a boundless love, energy, and optimism, his understanding of human nature going far beyond anyone I have ever met, or known in my life. He wrote, and spoke, with an immense warmth and a certain candour and honesty which I have yet to find in any other critic; he used anecdotes in his reviews, for example, and whilst this could backfire and seem like vanity, it never did with Roger. He was a man with stories worth telling. His review of the regrettable and forgettable "My Life In Ruins" (Driving Aphrodite in the UK), for example, contains this in the final paragraph;

"There is, in short, nothing I liked about "My Life in Ruins," except some of the ruins. The tourists are even allowed to consult the Oracle at Delphi. That scene reminded of when Chaz and I visited an ancient temple at Ise in Japan. Outside the gates, monks sat on platforms inscribing scrolls. "You may ask anything you want," our guide told us. "Will there be peace in our time?" asked Chaz. The monk gave a look at our guide. Our guide said, "Ah, I think maybe a better question may be more like, 'How many monks live in temple?' ""

What a wonderful piece of writing that is. It shows how soulful, sensitive, thoughtful and genuinely interested in the nature of human experience he truly was; a born wit, with a keen and observational eye.

Why am I telling you all this? The anniversary of Ebert's death was nearly two months ago. The trailer for the documentary about his life, "Life Itself", premiered a couple of days ago, so I guess it's that. But the truth is, from the moment I discovered him as a critic, he became the watermark by which all others were to be judged. What I instantly responded to was how he tailored each review to the film; serious films were given a serious review. Dumb films were given an irreverent review. If Ebert grappled with a film and didn't "get" it, more often than not that frustration would manifest itself (as in his infamous review of Blue Velvet). If a film angered Ebert, that anger would also manifest itself.

Above all, Ebert responded most to films which championed, celebrated or highlighted the worth of human life, and this is probably the greatest gift he has bestowed upon me as a critic also. It is, to me, the best approach there is to films. This year's Calvary, for example, moved me deeply and profoundly because I knew to approach it, or rather, I was attuned to the fact that it might be making a comment on human nature. That was Ebert.

He also responded to "pure" cinema (take his review of The Fall, of El Topo, or Prometheus). This, too, has helped me in terms of watching and reviewing films; the way in which he viewed cinema as a legitimate artform in itself, with methods and practices informed my own approaches. I understand he's hardly the only critic to treat cinema like this, but he was certainly the only one to open my eyes to the extent that he did.

Ebert's legacy is immense. My writings here are but a crude attempt to try and convey what other, better and more talented writers have felt about the man; that he was more than a film critic. He was a noble, honest man who viewed his films through the prism of his own very interesting life. He was a paragon of virtue. And, wherever you are Mr Ebert, I want you to know that I am grateful for all you have done for me.

I'm off to watch La Belle Noiseuse right now; were it not for you, I probably wouldn't have ever heard of it.

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