For the love of the movies
I love watching films. I absolutely love watching films. Nobody had to teach me that. But there is a very fine but definite line between liking something and admiring the same thing. What Roger Ebert – one of America’s most well-respected critics, who passed away recently – taught me through his writings was to appreciate things in a film that go beyond the superficial and make my movie-going experience a much deeper one. Let me hasten to add that this is not about how a film critic made me watch “art films” but about how Ebert made me watch every film, regardless of its genre or commercial potential, with a keen eye. While cinema is widely regarded as an entertainment form that needs to keep a viewer engrossed, what Ebert made me realize through his perceptive writing is that cinema is also an art form, one that is meant to be cherished and respected.
One of the things that separated Ebert from a lot of writers was that he never bothered to write anything about film gossip or scandals. His focus was always on what he watched on screen as well as why filmmakers did what they did. His conversations with people like Martin Scorsese (one of Ebert’s favorite Directors) showed that despite the respect that he enjoyed with the filmmakers, he never used to that to ask any uncomfortable questions about their personal lives. Instead, he had an admirable focus on the process of making a movie. A case in point is Roger Ebert’s reviews of “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Cape Fear,” (1991) both directed by Scorsese. In his critique of the former, he not only analyzed the movie but also wrote about how Scorsese’s childhood growing up in a gangster neighborhood as a sick kid made the latter fashion the shot of Ray Liotta’s (as a kid) character watch the gangsters with envy through the window of his house, eager but unable to participate in the action. While he admired the confidence with which Scorsese made the thriller “Cape Fear" (immediately after he had made “Goodfellas”) he was also quick to point out that Scorsese moved away from his core sensibilities to make a movie where it had only glimpses of Scorsese. In other words, Ebert was not content with even a well-crafted thriller like “Cape Fear” since its creator had not pushed the envelope as was his wont. These kinds of nuggets made my own viewing experiences of “Goodfellas,” “Cape Fear” and many other films richer.
Two other attributes of Ebert made me respect him even more over the years. The first was his attitude towards the movies. Second was his attitude towards life…and death.
Inspired by Ebert
For a very long time, I didn’t know why I liked his reviews so much more than others. One day, when I was writing my own review of “Anbe Sivam,” an epiphany came to me. As I was writing my review, I realized that I had an almost respectful tone. Kamal Hassan had made a great movie. And, I was getting every trick out of my bag of writing skills to convey my admiration. I had always worshipped Kamal as an actor. In “Anbe Sivam,” he just had made me completely surrender myself to his craft and had me in a trance. As I was writing my review, I realized that it was Ebert that made me write in a way that would convey the fact that I have – for the duration of a good movie – surrendered my senses to the filmmaker or the actor. If you carefully notice the tone of Ebert’s reviews vis-à-vis others, you will see this difference. Ebert’s writings will have an affectionate tone (for the good movies, that is!) and a degree of reverence that will be missing in others.
The second, more important trait, that I really admired in Ebert was his attitude towards life. I have always been a fan of people who have fought against things that were out of their control to live life to the fullest. In that respect, Ebert and Randy Pausch have something incredible in common – an unwavering focus on what they can control without worrying about what they can’t control. It requires a mind with the strength of steel to battle debilitating illness and yet emerge stronger and sunnier. Ebert, despite cancer taking away his ability to speak in the last few years of his life, was able to teach us all a thing or two about resilience and staying focused on the joys of life (He could still write lovingly of a movie that he liked. Just read his review of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and you’ll know what I mean). Even in the last days of his life, he demonstrated great strength in times of adversity. To sign off from writing for a while (I wonder if he knew that he had written his last piece), he wrote a final piece titled, "Leave of Presence." What a graceful way to sign off. It just went to show that class is something that just came naturally to certain people.
Ebert is no longer with us. But what he has left behind is a legacy. A legacy of eloquently written essays on film. But more importantly, the legacy of a life well-lived. Thank you, Roger. May your soul rest in peace.