In Memoriam: Roger Ebert


Dear Roger Ebert,

Since you left us in April 2013, I have been very lone­ly. There are few souls for whom movies are a core pas­sion of their lives. For over two decades, you have been a light­house for those of us who dared sail­ing unchart­ed waters of the deep ocean of films.

Less­er minds like ours would have been fas­ci­nat­ed at the “longest flash for­ward” in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma and iden­ti­fied with the ter­ror of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was you who helped us to appre­ci­ate the unique use of clas­si­cal music, observe that it is a movie intend­ed to make us con­tem­plate our place in the uni­verse, that we became humans when we learned to think, and that we are not flesh but intel­li­gence.

We had nev­er real­ized how the grad­u­al­ly increas­ing claus­tro­pho­bic ten­sion in 12 Angry Men was achieved, till you shared Lumet’s strat­e­gy of shoot­ing the first third of the movie above eye lev­el, the sec­ond third at eye lev­el, and the last third below eye lev­el.

Dis­cern­ing audio­philes among us had nev­er real­ly under­stood the box office suc­cess and pop­u­lar­i­ty of Amadeus, till you explained its strat­e­gy of “por­tray­ing Mozart not as a paragon whose great­ness is a bur­den to us all, but as a goofy pro­to-hip­pie with a high-pitched gig­gle”, and howfew of us can iden­ti­fy with divine genius, but many of us prob­a­bly have had dark moments of urgent self-con­tempt in the face of those whose effort­less exis­tence illus­trates our own inad­e­qua­cies”.

There are some of us who like to watch a movie com­plete­ly unpre­pared, with a blank state of mind, to be a vir­gin for the movie. There are oth­ers who come pre­pared, know­ing what to expect, what to appre­ci­ate, hav­ing labored at their stud­ies of the film as if it were an exam­i­na­tion that some­how will ulti­mate­ly deter­mine whether they passed or failed. I belong to the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry and you were my ref­er­ence ency­clo­pe­dia. I now feel as ner­vous as a vir­gin when con­tem­plat­ing to watch a new movie you have not reviewed.

You echoed our thoughts of how men­tal ill­ness in movies is usu­al­ly por­trayed as “grotesque, sen­sa­tion­al, cute, fun­ny, will­ful, trag­ic or per­verse” and how A Beau­ti­ful Mind avoid­ed doing so. I had cried uncon­trol­lably even as an ado­les­cent when I watched The Col­or Pur­ple for the first time, but you helped me under­stand how Spiel­berg and Gold­berg deceived my mind by mak­ing me live Celie’s life though I’m not female, not black, and not Celie.

We might have sim­ply laughed at the satire and com­e­dy in Dr. Strangelove, but you made us appre­ci­ate “its will­ing­ness to fol­low the sit­u­a­tion to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion — nuclear anni­hi­la­tion — a puri­ty that today’s lily-liv­ered hap­py-end­ing tech­ni­cians would prob­a­bly find a way around”, that every time you see it, you find new things in it, and thus, that there is tremen­dous grav­i­ty under­neath a suc­cess­ful com­e­dy.

Your review of Dead Man Walk­ing remind­ed us of “how most movies fall into con­ven­tion­al rou­tine, and lull us with the reas­sur­ance that they will not look too hard, or probe too deeply, or make us think beyond the bound­aries of what is com­fort­able”. It was you who helped us dis­cern that Fellini’s 8½ is not a film about a direc­tor out of ideas; it is a film filled to burst­ing with inspi­ra­tion.

You were nev­er hes­i­tant to admit your mis­takes, rather cheer­ful­ly learned from them. You fol­lowed up your ini­tial under­rat­ing of Ground­hog Day in 1993 with a revised out­look in 2005, thus telling us that it is okay to under or over rate a film in the first view­ing and change our per­spec­tive lat­er. You thus taught us that movies are liv­ing enti­ties in how they reflect our evolv­ing selves.

You gained my respect two decades back when you deemed Ikiru as “one of the few movies that might actu­al­ly be able to inspire some­one to lead their life a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly”. You became my soul mate when you sin­gled out the “well” scene in Red Beard as the unfor­get­table scene in the movie. I knew then, that I had a friend for life. But now you’ve left us and I am left star­ing at lone­li­ness. Inside my mind, I am scream­ing in a well, in des­per­ate hope that you will come back.

No friend of mine, no ‘rec­om­men­da­tion algo­rithm’, no ‘taste graph’, would have sug­gest­ed that I watch Kin­sey. That this “impos­si­ble” man’s work led even­tu­al­ly to the decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is some­thing I would nev­er have learned unless I had read your review. Folks may con­tin­ue to dis­cuss the tech­ni­cal­i­ty of the “longest kiss in the his­to­ry of movies” which side-stepped the pro­duc­tion code of “no kiss longer than three sec­onds” by inter­spers­ing dia­logue in Noto­ri­ous, but it was you who put this Hitch­cock mas­ter­piece into per­spec­tive and explained his tech­nique for the rest of us. You explained how Psycho’s mis­lead­ing, deceiv­ing plot set­up enhances its shock, and how Hitch­cock insid­i­ous­ly sub­sti­tutes pro­tag­o­nists.

I will nev­er for­get watch­ing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in a crowd­ed cin­e­ma hall with peo­ple even stand­ing in the aisles, watch­ing in rapt hyp­no­tism in pin drop silence. But it was you who made me real­ize the under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed work of Louise Fletch­er as the nurse. You did not crit­i­cize Hotel Rwan­da for not focus­ing on the geno­cide, and por­tray­ing the kind of hero who is not sil­hou­et­ted against moun­tain­tops.

In 1999, five years after The Shaw­shank Redemp­tion was released, you high­light­ed Red’s three appear­ances for parole as the “car­ri­er of the film’s spir­i­tu­al arc”. Five years lat­er, on its tenth anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion on Char­lie Rose, Darabont described those scenes as “car­ry­ing the movie’s tra­jec­to­ry”.

I was spell­bound by Mephis­to, but you helped me under­stand what it was all about. When Ing­mar Bergman left us in 2007, I described how and why I was afraid of watch­ing his films. I wait­ed over 20 years to brace myself to watch Cries and Whis­pers, to have the courage of with­stand­ing its extremes of human feel­ing, and it was you who instilled that courage in me.

You ele­vat­ed movie jour­nal­ism into an art form wor­thy of the first Pulitzer Prize for crit­i­cism. When you lost your voice to can­cer in 2006, you became more vocal using Twit­ter, as gra­cious as ever in admit­ting you werehum­bled by a moth­er of three in New Del­hi”. Such was your tenac­i­ty in remain­ing engaged with your world­wide fol­low­ers that you took “A Leave of Pres­ence” just two days before leav­ing us for­ev­er. You taught us not to be afraid of death, when in 2009 you saidI was per­fect­ly con­tent before I was born, and I think of death as the same state”.

Dear Roger, you were nev­er just a movie crit­ic. You were an inspi­ra­tion, a philoso­pher, and a friend even to those you nev­er met. You not only taught us more about movies than any film mak­er ever did, you helped us, again and again, to learn from movies how to live our lives bet­ter.

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