It’s been two years since Roger Ebert is not with us. Two years since we stopped going to rogerebert dot com to check his reviews of the latest releases and the hidden gems. Avinash Verma fondly remembers “our man at the movies” on his second death anniversary.
Mike Shiner tells Tabitha Dickinson in Birdman – “A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.”
The man in the above picture is the reason I will never agree to this statement.
4th April, 2013, Roger breathed his last. A man that has influenced me and probably million others like me in ways hard to comprehend. A towering and perhaps the most well-known figure in the world of movie criticism and the best movie critic for me personally.
I don’t know how exactly I started reading his reviews, it was perhaps on passionforcinema (a now defunct website) around 2007-08 that someone mentioned him and I went and read one of his reviews. Since that day, there hasn’t been a single film after watching which I haven’t rushed to read Ebert’s review. It was like a ritual for me. Sometimes I looked forward to his reviews more than the movies itself, coz his take was always unique and relatable. Many times it happened that I didn’t agree with what he had to say about that film (Tree of life being the most radical example, a film which I abhorred and he revered insanely) but it never happened that I did not learn new things from his reviews; be it about the film or the people associated with it or some hidden themes and motifs which elude average people like me easily during watching films. It also happened that many a times, after reading his reviews I had to go back to the film and watch it again and I could see it in an entirely new light (Gosling’s ‘Drive’ is one such film).
I feel good whenever I see any film released before 2013 because of the anticipation of reading his views on it and when I see films like Birdman or Gravity or Interstellar, I miss him. I miss his take on all these cinematic milestones. I wonder what he would have had to say about Thomas Riggan or Terence Fletcher. What he would have had to say about the heroes of ‘Wild’ or ‘Frances Ha’ or ‘Nebraska’? What would his reaction be on Keaton losing out to Redmayne? Heck, I would give my left kidney to see him go gaga over ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ the way he did over City of Gods or Goodfellas. It might sound exaggerated to people but the kind of void that his being no more have left is very very difficult to explain. His demise is probably the first and only instance in my life that rendered me so emotionally devastated upon losing someone I didn’t know personally.
I owe it to him, big time. His influence is perhaps the biggest in whatever little knowledge that I possess about cinema. So many times in my life I have quoted his lines verbatim in order to impress people around me. So many times I have used the trivia that I chanced upon through his reviews to show off my filmy knowledge. More often than not, his reviews has led me to new artists, new films, and new literature hitherto unknown to me. He was the only reviewer I could feel a connect with irrespective of his stand on those films. I have not only learnt about cinema from him, but so much about life too.
How many people have the genius to start a movie review with this brilliant line – “Who was it who said we get married because we want a witness to our lives? That may provide an insight into the troubled minds of the married couple in “Blue Valentine,” which follows them during their first six years of mutual witness.”; Or how many understand the fragility of a failed relationship and can draw parallels between life and its cinematic representation, “We never remember in chronological order, especially when we’re going back over a failed romance. We start near the end, and then hop around between the times that were good and the times that left pain. People always say “start at the beginning,” but we didn’t know at the time it was the beginning. “500 Days of Summer” is a movie that works that way.”
He did not like Fight Club (perhaps the most quoted film by the disenchanted millennials) and wrote such a beautiful critique of the same calling it “macho porn — the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights.” You can argue the merit of the films with him but you can’t refuge respect to his views because he is not talking outta his ass. He never did. He has valid and strong reasons to like/dislike things and an uncanny ability to put forth his arguments in an extremely lucid manner.
Watching the documentary “Life, Itself” that was shot during the last 5 months of his life increased my respect for this man a zillion folds. He was not able to eat, drink or talk since he was literally slack jawed because he lost his lower jaw to cancer in 2006. He kept sustaining fractures due to the fragility of his bones that comes with old age. At the time of shooting, it was his 7th time in physio rehab. He couldn’t eat, drink or talk and yet he didn’t cower back into the trenches and wrote almost 300 reviews per year and never once he made people feel that he was inadequate. He spoke with the help of a computer and wrote furiously, and not just about films. For him, Blogging was the only way he could survive and thank god for Internet which made him live those few extra years.
Before the documentary, I had only seen him in seminars or in photo-ops with his turtleneck hiding his exposed windpipe but to see the saliva being suctioned off from his throat via a needle was highly distressing. You could see the pain in his eyes while the nurse is inserting that tube in his throat and you can’t but flinch at his discomfort, and to think that this happened every single day for the last 7 years of his life! His wife was against shooting this process and he requested the director Steve James (who made ‘Hoop Dreams’, a 1994 documentary Roger loved and promoted with all his heart) to shoot it on a day when she isn’t there. A man at his vulnerable worst not shying away from sharing it with the world. That’s the Ebert I will remember for the rest of my life. The small bit where his step-granddaughter speaks about her experiences with Roger makes you realize how important it is to expose children to great art and help them develop a perspective in their early years.
He was a flawed man, an alcoholic, a womanizer (He loved big bosomed women and was never apologetic of proclaiming his love for them. The only film he wrote was ‘Beyond the Valley of Dolls’ an exploitation film, a B Grade psychedelic ode to big breasted women with guns and a dash of sex, nudity, and violence), an egoistic competitive asshole (sometimes) and perhaps that’s the reason so many people connected with him on a very personal level coz he never hid his insecurities. He was vocal about his imperfections.
He was an alcoholic before he took his last peg in 1979 never to touch it again. He came out in 2009, after staying sober for 30 full years. “One martini is just right. Two martinis are too many. Three martinis are never enough”, he quoted M. F. K. Fisher in his biography “Life, Itself”; some quotable and filmable portions of which you can find in the namesake documentary as well but I suggest you read the book coz it has much more in depth details of his early years in Urbana, Illinois which are fascinating to read as they give you a glimpse of his shaping years.
The documentary gives you deep insights on his relationship with his better critic-half, his competitor from across the street, Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, who with their controversial ‘Thumbs Up/Down’ rating system rattled the movie review show model. They did not like each other. They argued like mad people coz movies mattered to them more than anything. They were two extremely different personas and yet they managed to spend 24 years on TV together coz somewhere they respected each other more than they envied each other. Some of the most hilarious bits on the docu are the blooper reel from their show “At the movies”.
What made Ebert special for me was his great grip on philosophy, his acute grasp of human emotions, his understanding of life in general and the ability to decode the most complex things in the most simple of ways. He knew cinema, he knew life and he understood clearly that they are not very far apart from each other.
A man who received huge criticism for his stand on video games. A man who was never afraid of saying what he felt, never giving a flying fuck to studios who put millions of dollars into shitty films , never holding back when it came to appreciate genuine talent (see how much heart and soul he puts into his words whenever he sees real talent and how carefully he sees every film’s every single frame!) and a man who looked death into the eyes and said “I am not afraid of you.”
Two days before his death, Roger took a leave of presence. He was very excited about the future as it is pretty evident from this piece, but alas, he died one day after his 46th anniversary as a critic. A lifetime spent watching and analyzing movies. There is a scene in the docu when Chaz tells the camera person that Roger is excited because he will get to see a movie later that he wanted to see and Ebert starts clapping with a childlike glee on his face. I envy you Mr Ebert!
I know that my words are not capable enough to do justice to this monumental man, hence I am linking this brilliant piece on him done by Esquire a few years ago to let you know what an exceptionally inspiring human being he was, besides being the most heard/read film critic on the globe.
He was not just a ‘critic’. He was a man who taught millions like me how to watch films. He was not just an informer, he was a soldier of cinema, one of its finest storytellers who led his battles with a typewriter, instead of a camera.
Thank you Chaz for taking such good care of him in his last years. Thank you Steve James for this moving tribute to his legacy. Thank you Roger Ebert, for reviewing films.
If only you could review ‘Life, Itself’ too.
(Avinash is an Ex-MICAn. His full time job is to watch movies and in his free time he pretends to be a Digital Marketeer. He loves indie films and likes to be comfortably numb whenever he can. Also, hates all the ads Ranbir Kapoor is in)