Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert Has Taken a Permanent "Leave of Presence"

RIP Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

Roger Ebert was 70 when he died yesterday and had spent the last decade battling cancer, yet his writing almost never slowed. In fact, it seemed to impossibly double when he lost the use of his voice some years ago.

I've read several obituaries and tributes to the man, the best of which can be found here, and nothing I can say will do justice to the life he led and the influence he had as the nation's most recognizable film critic.

In 46 years as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, he amassed a catalog of thousands upon thousands of reviews. For a long stretch he ran a bi-weekly Great Movies column. In recent years those columns took a back seat as he focused more on his blog which became his voice online when he no longer could express himself verbally to the people standing next to him. He expounded on a variety of topics including politics, philosophy, religion, evolution, death, video games as art, and his own personal history and memories. If his blog writing had a unifying theme it was the expression of humanity and compassion. He allowed comments on his blog entries. He personally read and approved every single one of them, occasionally even responding. His entries dealing with video games and evolution have thousands of comments posted. His blog was widely praised for having the most sensible and well-behaved readership on the Internet. The level of debate was usually elevated.

Roger Ebert was my personal mentor. Until I discovered during college that his writing was actually quite good, I had always thought of him as an "all thumbs and no brains movie critic." I didn't think he was worth his salt. Then you read his stuff and man can he tackle a movie. It was always a hoot to read reviews of movies he hated (there's even a collection of them in book form), but for everything else he lent a critical voice that suggested a conversational style. You didn't need a Master's in comparative studies to know what he was talking about. He came at the movies from the level of story and character. More than anything, Ebert was a fantastic analyst of character traits and motivations. He wrote simply and concisely. I've always tried to model my own writing on his, though I often find I need three sentences to express what he can say in one.

When I want to see how my views on a film align with the professional critics, I go immediately to Ebert and then to the New York Times (because I do kind of like the comparative studies approach to film criticism even if I can't come close to replicating it). I have felt in recent years that Ebert got too soft and awarded far too many highly positive reviews to crummy Hollywood fare that was undeserving, but then I remember he was always trying to write with the movie's intended audience in mind. That's a very tough thing to do. I know because I've tried it myself. When you know that the young males will love Transformers, how do you put a positive spin on it if you think it's shit? Well, read Ebert to find out how it's done.

I don't know if I'll ever be lucky enough to get something published in a book, but I kind of already made it twice. I had questions featured in Ebert's Movie Answer Man column twice. The first time was about MPAA ratings and Ebert's then constant argument for a new rating to come between R and NC-17. That was in 1999 and can be found here or in Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2000. The second was a year later with a query regarding a change made to Wonder Boys for the home video release. That can be found in the 2001 Movie Yearbook.

There was also a time when I wrote him for his take on a situation I was in as President of the Connecticut College Film Society. It was kind of a tradition for the film society to create a scandal every year (my sophomore year it was for running an Antichrist weekend during the Easter holiday). So in my senior year, my second year as president of the club, we voted In the Realm of the Senses to be shown. You may not know about this film, but it has a storied and controversial history for featuring graphic sex and ending with genital mutilation. We advertised it as Japanese porn and attracted a near sellout crowd for the first showing. It was the first film in the club's history to turn a profit ($7.50 over the $250 rental fee, I believe). A large portion of the audience walked out before the film finished. Then the Asian students awareness group demanded a sit down the next week. Here's what Ebert had to say in his personal response to my inbox (typos are his, I copied and pasted):

I get so very tired of people who dislike a film becasuse it shows "only one side" of a subject. Films make no pretense of being mobjective. Almost all films show only one side of a subject. Most Japanese films do not show THIS side of the subject! The woman that movie is about starred for years in a popular Japanese nightclub where her only task was to walk across the room once a night (Donald Richie has an essay about this). Japanese culture, like ours, has endless facets, and endless films to explore it. The purpose of a film series is to show good movies, not to manage the image of a nation or anything else. If the head of the Connecticut College Asian Students Assn. were not at heart a Chamber of Commerce type, he would realize that a great film reflects favorably on its culture, no matter what the subject, just as a bad film reflects negatively. 

Your letter suggests two things:
1. The film society is doing its job.
2. If 90 percent of a college audience walks out of this film, is the college doing its job?
"In the Realm of the Senses" is of enormous artistic and political importance. It is so contgroveresial that even those who hate it should be interested enough to stay and debate it.
My horrible suspicion is that many of your audience members have not reached the level of sophistication required to see a subtitled film from another culture, and just as many might have walked out of, say, Kurosawa's "Ikiru."
I reviewed it, but can;t find my review in digital form.
 It was a big moment for me to have that kind of validation and to feel like I was doing something worthwhile and important. In recent years, Ebert has featured several upstart film critics from different cities around the world in his Far Flung Correspondents feature. They were people who regularly commented on his blog and he discovered were writers themselves. Then he gave them a wide audience. He did something similar for a blogger who settled on a personal project to watch and review every disc in the Criterion collection - something I would love to try.

Roger Ebert died the day after his 46th anniversary as film critic for the Sun-Times. His final tweet came on that anniversary. It was a link to his latest, and ultimately final, blog entry titled "My Leave of Presence: An Update." He explained he'd be taking some time away because it turned out his cancer had returned, but he went on and on about his future plans for Great Movies reviews, a new design for, and the upcoming Ebertfest. I felt sad that he was sick again, but his vigor for new and continuing projects led me to believe he would continue to provide reading material for some time. A leave of presence seems absolutely right to me. His writings, his opinions, his manner of facing the world will always be present.

Here's to hoping my writing can continue to improve and maybe someday be something close to even his worst stuff. I'll miss you on my daily read, Roger. May your eternal afterlife be filled only with film classics.

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