Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Remembering a Titan of the Art and Science of Film Criticism

On Thursday, April 4, 2013, the lights forever dimmed. A man I have come to idolize in terms of my passion for the art and science of the moving image, not to mention my innate passion for the written word, passed away due to complications from a heartbreaking form of thyroid cancer. This man is Roger Ebert, the man who forever transformed the way I evaluate the entertainment, and art, I see on the tube and big screen. He was unable to speak normally in his later years, but he kept plugging along until his severely debilitating condition really began to sink in, which was not too, too long ago in the historical sense of the word. Either way, I believe his legacy will continue to influence those who love to give a flick an omnipresent thumb up or thumb down, for reasons that go beyond a medium all of us might otherwise take too much for granted.

When I was a child, I could only appreciate the cinema in color since the 80's and 90's were all in living color. As a matter of fact, I was afraid to go to the movie theater altogether because I just could not stand watching and listening to something on a screen too gargantuan for my eyes and ears to handle. But, as I grew into adolescence, I overcame my visual and auditory apprehensions and began to embrace the cinema as it was in the 20th and early 21st century. Ebert recalled when he saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) for the first time as a child that he "simply did not notice whether a movie was in color or not." So, you could say that, for me, it was the other way around. I simply knew which films were in color and which films were in a grainy or super-polished black-and-white. But, again, as I came of age, I began to love both color and black-and-white films since both of them are valid forms of popular entertainment and true artistic expression. Although not a film preservationist in the most technical sense of the word, Ebert always made it clear that, no matter what hues we see on a screen, each film is unique and transcendent in its own right.

No friend or family member of mine, not to mention myself, was ever fond of the people who worked behind the scenes to create a finished product almost every other person on the planet views on a daily basis, even in today's highly digitized landscape. I am talking particularly in regards to the filmmakers Ebert always chastised or raved about, whether it be the auteurs (Martin Scorsese, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski), the commercial wizards (Michael Bay, David Fincher), or those who can actually be described as something of both (Steven Soderbergh, Peter Jackson, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg). The director is the true visionary, or so they say. But it was Ebert who challenged this preconceived notion most thoroughly, for he made me more aware of the collaborative complexities of not only the person who calls "action," but also the people who "create" the film from scratch (i.e. editors, production designers, cinematographers, sound technicians, make-up artists, etc.). Indeed, it was Ebert who made mefeel as if I knew everyone involved in the multilayered collaborative process.

Not all summer/action blockbuster films and other multimillion-dollar commercial "products" are appealing to my utmost cinematic awe. In fact, since many of them are so formulaic, I do not find too many of them to be worthwhile entertainment, nor exquisite pieces of art. In addition, many mainstream comedies, dramas, thrillers, fantasies, and science fiction flicks with those on Hollywood's A-List are not all that substantial in terms of intellectual curiosity, effective craftsmanship and, most importantly, pure cinema "magic." Moreover, there are just some popular films I could care less about if, say, a mega-celebrity like Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson stars in an ultra-mainstream blockbuster and then tarnishes his or her onscreen (and off-screen) reputation by manipulating the public with his or her substance abuse issues, marital problems, political views, and other obnoxious behavior in the tabloids and on such trashy entertainment news shows like TMZ. Fortunately, I'll always remember Ebert for broadening my horizons with other cinema that is always going to out there, like independent films alas the Sundance Film Festival, avant-garde/experimental flicks too "un-mainstream" for anyone to remember or care about, documentaries that are not "Reality TV-lite," and, possibly above all else, movies with those yellow or white words on the bottom of the screen we would rather not look at, for the lack of a better word. If too many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays are just recycled from other Hollywood extravaganzas of yesteryear, I can always count on a renowned critic like Ebert to "guide" me through the ever-expanding landscape of foreign language, American independent, and other "outside-the-box" fare.

Of course, all of us had to disagree with at least some of Ebert's reviews throughout his fruitful 46-year-long career at the Chicago Sun-Times (Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) is just one very potent example that comes to my mind!). But this did not mean that I was completely oblivious to whatever points he was trying to make when it came to his dislike for what was otherwise viewed as great entertainment and/or art by the masses. Like your fellow congressperson who may or may not share the exact same views of certain important issues of the day as you, Ebert reminded me that even if one disagrees with the other person on a particular social issue or specific form of entertainment and/or work of art, one can always find common ground on why the other believes he or she has rated something a certain way. In other words, it all came down to me agreeing to disagree with Ebert some of the time when he attacked certain films on the basis of their content and overall production values. And him giving those hilarious reviews he posted in his bestselling I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000), Your Movie Sucks (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2007), and A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012) might as well have given me a hearty laugh rather than a ferocious outcry. In all essence, he made it seem and feel as if some really bad movies were so bad that they were, indeed, good to watch for the sake of my own guilty pleasures.

Unlike the other popular film critics of his generation, such as Pauline Kael and, of course, Gene Siskel, Ebert knew how much power, and how far-reaching, social media has, and can have, on the field of entertainment journalism and society in general. He wrote blogs, some scathing and others extra-insightful. He made new generations of moviegoers fall in love with films that were available only online or through some obscure media outlets. He even had the courage to "speak" with an Apple MacBook in front of young, tech-savvy audiences at college campuses across the country after having his jaw removed because of his thyroid cancer. What made Ebert so appealing to those of the "old newspaper" world and the "new journalism" foundation was his innate ability to adapt to the technological, and typographical, needs of the world in the early 21st century. Even more significant was his ability to make me feel as if newspapers themselves are not exactly "dying," but are rather being reinvented with many of their stylistic conventions still in tow.

Roger Ebert was no doubt a gift to my academic and creative writing sensibilities. He made me feel more comfortable with writing in the eloquent styles resembling a Fulbright Scholar, a Master's or Doctoral student writing his/her thesis/dissertation, and a film historian. Moreover, his sometimes bashing critiques of what he calls "bad movies" made feel as if it is okay to laugh while continuing to believe he was the first-ever film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, something we usually associate with seriousness and sometimes outright sadness in the journalistic sense of the word. Yet, no matter how you perceived Ebert in terms of his distinctive writing style, I believe he was a writer whose prolific "works" deserve to be put in the echelon of the great American writers of the past century, like Hemingway, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Thomas Wolfe, and even Stephen King. I can also say that Ebert continued to fascinate and inspire writers in the Digital Age (i.e. early 21st century). But no matter what era he belonged to, he was a national treasure to reckon with for all times.

His thumbs may no longer be "up," but they will never come "down" for as long as the movies are a vital part of our moral, political, social, emotional, and technical consciousness.

1 comment:

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