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 how “few 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 were “humbled 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 said “I 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.