Thoughts on life after the PhD
I still remember the one email I sent to Roger Ebert in college that got a response.
It was a desperate plea for information about Mononoke hime, the Miyazaki film that was getting rave reviews at film festivals but still didn’t seem to have a U.S. distributor. “Slowly working its way into national release,” he wrote.
It meant something, that an internationally famous film critic and TV star would take the time to write back to a simple fan query that would have been answered by newspapers and magazines a few weeks later. It was as if he understood the longing to see a really good film and wanted to reassure me that yes, soon, it’ll be here.
I started reading Ebert’s reviews in the mid 1990s. They gave me my first inkling that films were about much more than film, that a good conversation or debate about a movie was often a thinly veiled conversation about life’s biggest questions. From a fairly young age I sought out people who wanted to move beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” who saw films as much more than an escape or a way to kill time on a date.
Those people were hard to find. But Roger Ebert was always there, saying things that resonated with my experience of the films he reviewed, drawing conclusions that had been on the edge of my perception but that I hadn’t been able to put into words. The conversation never felt one-sided, even if he was the one doing all the writing.
Reading the hundreds of tributes that have poured out over the past few hours, this sentiment comes up again and again: we all felt like we KNEW Roger Ebert, that he was one of us, that we could have sat down with him and talked movies in a coffee shop. And, thanks to his blog and his willingness to engage directly with fans, we felt like we were already doing that.
Roger Ebert could make poetry out of seemingly mundane things like dinner at a Steak ‘n Shake or the many uses for a rice cooker (I’m with you on the rice cookers, Roger). Many of his deep thoughts were connected in some way to film, but after he lost the power of speech and turned more and more to his blog, the voice that emerged had meaningful things to say about everything from gun control to Catholicism to global warming to his gloriously romantic relationship with his wife Chaz.
Something happened to Ebert’s writing after 2006, a transformation that has been commented on extensively. I noticed, for one thing, that he seemed to be giving out a lot more four-star reviews, often for movies that I thought he might have panned ten years before. I didn’t trust his opinion as blindly as I once had (positive reviews for The Happening and The Golden Compass? Seriously?). But the razor-sharpness of his negative reviews was still intact—Sex and the City 2 was one of my favorites, along with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Even his negative reviews didn’t feel mean-spirited, though. When he hated a movie he hated it because it could have been something much better, or because it was lazy, or because it was an insult to the intelligence of movie viewers, an intelligence he never doubted. One of my favorite stories is of the actor Rob Schneider, whose dreadful Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo inspired the title of Roger Ebert’s book, Your Movie Sucks. While Ebert was ill, Schneider sent him flowers with a card signed “Your Least Favorite Movie Star.” Commenting on the incident, Ebert said:
“Sometimes when I write a negative review, people will say, ‘I’ll bet you can’t wait to hammer his next film.’ Not true. I would far rather praise the next film to show that I maintained an open mind…(The flowers) were a reminder, if I needed one, that although Rob Schneider might (in my opinion) have made a bad movie, he is not a bad man, and no doubt tried to make a wonderful movie, and hopes to again. I hope so, too. ”
Reading even his most negative reviews, you really got the feeling that this was true—that he desperately wanted these actors, directors, and writers to do better, and would congratulate them if they did.
When I think of Ebert’s writing, the single adjective that I remember most is awe. He was in awe of so many things, and he made you feel in awe of them too. And he had a profound sense of empathy, and a rational, calm way of writing about death and mortality that revealed a deep and abiding love for life.
Ebert is endlessly quotable, and collections of his best reviews and musings on life and film are swarming the web right now. For me, there’s this section from a piece about his relationship with his wife Chaz:
“This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.”
Or this, from his “Great Movies” review of Dark City: “This is not only a beautiful film but a generous one, which supplies rich depth and imagination and many more details than are really necessary to tell the story…Many other great films give you the same feeling — that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.”
Or this one: “What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: curious and teachable.”
It actually hurts to think of future movies that Roger Ebert won’t review, future events of worldwide significance that he won’t comment on. It was almost ritualistic for me to watch movies first on my own, then seek out his reviews and nod my head or have a heated mental argument when we disagreed. Reading his reviews was, in a way, like experiencing the joy of a good film all over again. Reading his blog was just a joy.
Thanks for giving sharing a regular dose of awe, Roger. I’m doing my best to remain curious and teachable.
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