The People’s Critic
It was in the early hours of April 5, when I saw someone re-tweet the announcement from The Chicago Sun-Times about the passing of Roger Ebert. I waited a few minutes before other media outlets picked up on the sad news, lest it be a pre-mature broadcast. Looking back, it couldn’t have been, because it came from the very newspaper the film critic, screenwriter, author, Pulitzer Prize winner, and — most of all, — journalist had been part of since 1967. Nevertheless, knowing the world is short of one influential figure made it difficult to sleep that night.
A Cinematic Conscience
When he was still alive, most of what I knew of Ebert is limited to his career, particularly written work published through his column-turned-official-website, and Twitter account. I also maintained an awareness of the cancer he publicly lived with, which cost him his ability to talk, yet failed to rob him of his ability to project his personal voice up to the very end. As I watched videos of his former televsion show, “At the Movies”, followed his commanding presence in the world of film, and observed his trademark two-thumbs rating system, knowledge of his generosity and warmth were distant, yet pleasant non-surprises. I realised that while they’re surely the basis of Ebert as a person, they also added to the substance of his influence.
Sure enough, Ebert didn’t just write about film. He allowed readers to get a glimpse into his deeper life, the one beyond all the journalism. Now and then, he injected an occasional political, religious, or social commentary in the diverse spice rack that is his various outlets. Each encouraged the similar lively dialogue characteristic of his typical write-ups. Similarly, through his passion for moving pictures, what he shared with his audience reminds us to look beyond the superficial glitz and glamour the general public tends to marinate in, and take a conscious interest in the stories, the motivations, the emotions, and other less tangible elements that we often experience, but seldom can articulate. It is in this movement towards a cinematic conscience that I started doing reviews of my own.
The Things that Matter
As the news permeated through various social networking websites, and the condolences poured in, I recalled the philosophies of John Cusack’s character from the 2000 comedy-drama, “High Fidelity”. Incidentally, it was a film Ebert very much enjoyed. By and large, I had a love-hate relationship with Rob Gordon throughout much of the film adaptation, with the exception of an unconditional love for the following gem:
…I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth…
The above immediately got me thinking about a remark I received over my shift to writing reviews as counter-productive and connotes a sort of negativity towards these works, because, you know, criticism. But, after writing a few, I realised that no good artist would be so complacent as to think that none of their creations will warrant opinion. Ebert also reiterates that true appreciation of a film lies beyond gushing over the physical beauty of the cast members, indulging in cookie-cutter storylines, and the endless pursuit of a happy ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with either in themselves, but through example, he demonstrates a greater examination of various aspects surrounding a film, as well pave the possibility on how to internalise certain plot points and lines of dialogue.
In his television show, Ebert would have a companion to instigate that exchange. During some instances, conversations between the two would escalate to spirited debates almost akin to sibling quarrels. All of this is healthy, and very much so. Even in its multitude of volumes, “At the Movies” is essentially a discussion of ideas. When done properly, reviews — whether written or vocal — is an exchange of perspectives stemming from various contexts. The extraction of the inner workings of a film would be present in the latter. Therein, one can detect the presence of a mutual understanding. This is not to say that the universal formula for compatibility is to always establish common ground. But ideally, it is, because when applied practically, it is the perfect litmus test for forming relationships.
Why? Books, films, and music are ultimately manifestations of ideas.
Popular culture may be dismissed as trite because of its wide reach, but it is strangely deep for a phenomena that is considered to be a reflection of the masses. Those with a disdain for it may scoff, but Ebert did not hesitate on immersing himself in the mainstream. When he loved a film, he was not stingy in his exaltation; when he hated a film, he made no hesitation in letting the fact be known. But, most of all, he elevates the hidden depths of the wonderful medium most of us know well. It should inspire us to do the same.
Roger Ebert has left a legacy of awareness in his eternal “leave of presence”, and it is a beautiful purpose to strive to achieve. In the spirit of what Ebert loved in life, read a book that jolts your emotions and forces you to become emotionally invested in the plot. Listen to a song that triggers shivers up your spine. Watch a film so overwhelming that your only succinct reaction to the story would be a stream of expletives. Then, when you’re done, go out for coffee with someone. Discuss the experience. Write about it. Disagree, shout, then understand each other. Do it all over again when you don’t feel inspired to do so. Fall in love with the process. Ebert did.