Monday, 29 April 2013

Roger and me

Roger Ebert, Chicago film critic extraordinaire, died on April 4th 2013. My memories of Ebert are entirely derived through his writings. I have never met Roger in person.

I first began reading Ebert's reviews when Siskel died. That was back in 1999 and I was still a teenager watching awful movies like The Animal or The Waterboy (sadly admit I witnessed both in theatres). I had been watching the Siskel and Ebert night at the movies up until then, and it was entertaining stuff. They bickered but you knew there was a real opinion behind every comment. Every week they introduced countless new films. It would have been impossible not to tear down the walls and open up. Keeping in mind they were not professional talkers, rather professional writers, and could not BS their way through every review. I have a good BS detector and never once did alarms sound with these two. My own "to thine own self be true"-type honesty had yet to mature, and so as I watched their recommendations of good movies week after week I still would go with friends and catch the latest Sandler flick. But shortly after Siskel died, my curiosity got the best of me and wondered what Ebert looked like in writing. Back then his website was nonexistent. The domain had yet to be registered (as far as I know). Thankfully the Chicago Sun Times had even then an electronic database of his reviews.

Each week new reviews were posted, and I read them tentatively, at first, for I still had no idea what to do with such information. Living in Ottawa during my late high school years, I was sandwiched between a Blockbuster and Rogers Video. Here was the stuff of thin soup; most of the new releases Ebert would recommend as four-star best films were unavailable. Even if they had been, I was in no position to twist anyone's arm to go see something deemed "a masterpiece". Thankfully I did also grow up watching Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost. Because of Elwy and my dad I did get to see classics like Citizen Kane, Greed, On the Waterfront, and Modern Times. In adding to that short of masterpieces I had to wait another 15 years.

By sheer coincidence the American Film Institute had opted to celebrate its own centennial the year before Siskel had died. In 1998 they created a television special "100 years...100 movies". The TV special was divided into two days. The movies were described through interviews with known directors and actors. Everyone had a conviction these movies deserved to be there for some reason, not to fill the list but because they were important. Titles like Schindler's List and To Kill a Mockingbrid. By the end of the first instalment I was simply excited to learn that some movies I did not know existed and that others mattered. The seeds had been planted that some movies were more worthwhile to see than others.

It was was around the time of Siskel's death, after accepting Ebert as more than someone's half when I noticed on his website a list appeared of his own 100 "great movies". It seemed likely a response to the AFI 100 list, for they appeared all at once, unless I had just not noticed them before. As with the AFI tribute I recognized some, like Duck Soup, E.T., Silence of the Lambs, but felt unsettled at how many I did not, for his list was not only American film, but film from around the world. Foreign titles like Aguirre: Wrath of God, L'Avventura, Belle de Jour, Wings of Desire were unknown to me. I was reminded again that I had not ever seen classics like Chinatown, the Third Man, or Notorious. Since publishing his first 100 essays he has added maybe 260+ more, averaging about 26 a year or one every two weeks. How fitting that Ebert almost (exactly?) ended his list with 365 total movie recommendations, possible then to see them all in one year. He always meant for his writings to be accessible, and his lists, which he hated labelling as such, not be overwhelming. His very last "great" film review was the Ballad of Narayama, is thus far unseen by me. I have learned to treasure these unseen ones as much (or more) than those I've watched, for they lie ahead. Ending with that number was certainly an accident of fate, for I know of many films he intended to canonize, but it seems fitting with Roger's style.

It was not until my graduate university years, when I was 25 or so, that I finally tackled seeing all 100 AFI movies. It was something of a four-month fling that I knew when it had ended was over. But I recalled Ebert's list, which was now in print as The Great Movies. I bought a copy outright at the local bookstore and started reading. Despite having the same number of movies as the AFI list (at that point anyway), somehow unlike the former I felt this 100 was just the start. Thanks to Ebert I soon moved into the realm of foreign film, of which the supply of good but unheard-of movies seemed endless. (Here I must also thank the McGill university library for stocking so many classics on DVD. They even had an archive of some very obscure ones on VHS). Because each movie was contained in an essay, they alluded to other good movies in turn not in the "official" list. His book was more organic than a simple list. It planted ideas in one's head inviting growth both in height and breadth while extending roots downward. In contrast the AFI list felt pruned, vetted, or worse some valuable chest containing exactly 100 gold coins.

Roger's idea of lists was more playful. He often refused to rank movies, paradoxically it seemed, as he also would argue that some movies (like Citizen Kane) simply are better than others (like Transformers 2). But there was method to this madness, for he was also inviting discussion. When on TV and writing in print for the Chicago Sun this discussion was limited to other writers, colleagues, actors, directors, and others inner circles. Only if one attended the Conference on World Affairs or his Ebertfest could you ask him questions. Though I sensed there was something about his writings that always invited comments (that he himself would never hear), that wall was about to fall with the age of the internet. In the early 2000s the website came to be and with it his full engagement with the public. Here is a snapshot of it from 2005. It actually looked much the same as 2013 (up until shortly after Ebert's death where a complete overhaul was made). But in that time the look was not important, only the content. Books, reviews, and interviews were there, but a spark grew into a flame, for Ebert was culling his readers for intelligent insight.

As his website grew in scope as well as depth of material he now linking directly with the common reader. He responded to comments on his website, linked to correspondents from around the world, retweeted links to other blogs he found, etc. All the while continuing his reviews, and expanding his great movie list, his Answer Man column, his own blogs, twitter feeds, and so on. In another persons hands posting so much material would appear narcissistic or vain. But not with Roger, for he used his connectivity and expression of thought as a centre around which moviegoers themselves could gravitate. This in turn would launch brand new discussions, sometimes between readers. Again it would seem that in most hands this dismantling of the ivory tower would affect the quality of his work, but here he did not fail either. He continued to correspond with directors, actors, and writers. His reviews did not suffer from fanboy-ism. There was no pandering to readers, no compromises of any kind. Rather than allowing his open comments sections to be won over by internet trolls, the constant feedback on his blogs became an elaboration on the original post itself. His most playful (and my favourite) example would be his blog of limericks, in which every reader replied in turn with a creation of their own.

The best writers engage in an imaginary dialogue with their readers. Ebert was beyond an exceptional writer. Not only had he created a conversation with me and millions more, but permitted the illusion to become a reality. A discussion can that begin with a social activity like going to the movies. But movies are no longer attended in the masses they once were. Ebert recognized this fact, and decided to reignite the passions of intelligent argument through the same medium that was being accused of dismantling the film industry. He embraced Netflix, Hulu, reader comments, blogs, and Twitter, all the while using them to encourage people to see more of those "great", or, as I called them above, these "branching" movies both old and new.

There was so much more I meant to write here, but that is enough for now. There will never be enough room to write it all. Another post perhaps. What I have learned from Ebert is Quality. To know what can and cannot be contained in any list of good movies. To learn that all such lists are either infinite or incomplete. That writing is never a completed task but another form of thinking. Not everyone is fortunate  enough to express themselves by making an entire film but to write about your own experience that is open to all. Just need a little time, a few interesting movies, and a few bottles of virtual ink.  

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