Friday, July 11, 2014

Life Itself, Life Elsewhere

I did not grow up with Elbert and Siskel, or have many a formative memory about discovering how love for film, or for a film, could be articulated to others. There was no informal education imparted to me by his criticism and yet, when news of Roger Ebert's death reached me last year, I quickly felt a little swish of emptiness and regret that his voice and project, so clear and encompassing, would just lose its place in present discourse. That, when people talked about movies, they would nevermore be as clear, personal, engaged and humble as Ebert could be when at his best, even when you disagreed with him. I feared that film criticism would suddenly turn into a circus of loud bickering on numbers, name checking, economic deals and technical form.

What one forgets is how influential Ebert really was, and I suspect one forgets because he didn't make it a central point of his career to give his readers a concrete idealization of what film should be and the direction it should take. He was both more humble and more ambitious than that. Instead of rummaging philosophical to answer the question 'what is film?' he wanted to understand what film, as an art form, tries to do, and understood that to have a critical conversation about a film that impresses our mind and heart was to ultimately have a critical conversation about our life, about what lies outside the film and stays with the audience.

The biographical documentary LIFE ITSELF, by Steve James, reminds us of just how big and important Ebert has turned out to be. After all, just to think of a close example, JumpcutJunkies began as a sort of attempt to a similar format as Ebert and Siskel's. That style, of passionate and personal conversation where not only the qualities of a film are discussed as in a vacuum but as it relates to the speaker, is directly related to Ebert's work as a critic, and it has been so ingrained in how the general public thinks about criticism that I feel it is now just taken for granted. And beyond Ebert's style and idiosyncrasies (his formative experiences as a reporter, the movies he liked and the era of filmmaking in which he began to review) this film simply tells us about his love for life, and how much love he received from everyone who knew him and was part of his life. The film is highly conventional, and straight forward in its celebratory treatment of its subject, but it is impossible not to see the outpour of a man's soul through the cage of those formal qualities just as it is impossible not to be deeply touched, humbled and inspired by the grace of that outpour.

I don't want to be misread here as someone who did not know about Ebert before this film and is suddenly through it exposed to new avenues of thought. I think the film works as the celebration of a man we would like to know, a man we already know something about. For a long time for me, he was tangential to my conscious effort to understand film as art and certain films as worthy to be called works of art. But then he was always a familiar figure, even when I did not even understand what he was saying. When I first came to the United States, at 15 years of age, I did not understand much English, and on weekends I wouldn't go out in my neighborhood (too out of place, and it was a bit dangerous) so all I had was to mindlessly go through the many channels on our television. Sunday afternoons, when at my most bored, I would catch At The Movies for a few minutes. I did not understand at first much beyond the thumbs up and thumbs down that Ebert and Roeper would give a film, but I remember liking and prefer Ebert immensely because I could always read his face. His thoughts and emotions where right there to be grasped, and as my understanding of the language grew, the action of giving a film thumbs up or down was less annoying. As diminutive as the thumbs up or down could be as a review system, it was also simple, straight forward, and backed up with kindness and understanding without ever being condescending towards the film or the audience when the review was kind.

The man's face and eagerness to embrace the humanity behind any film was so enduring in my memory, so incisive, that years later he was the only person I could trust to tell me if a film was worth watching. I remember a Summer before college I was already tired of only watching what the main movie theaters would have for show, or what the film history textbook would call a classic. I swore off film altogether, and over a Summer weekend, when bored and willing to try out to watch movies again, I browsed the local blockbuster for anything that didn't have the establishment stamp of 'masterpiece' or 'fun for the whole family'. I stumbled upon an unknown dvd, MARYAM, which seemed interesting mainly because I knew nothing about it and there seemed to be no way any one else could know. Turns out Ebert had a review up and after reading it, I could not wait to return to the store and obtain the film to watch it. Reading his review acted as a dispatch, an urging to engage with the news not that there was a masterpiece to be seen and studied, or that there were provocative and shocking visuals, but that here there simply was a film made by a human being which engaged empathically with life itself. There was no emphasis on narrative or political pull, but rather on just the empathetic, honest nature of Ebert's response to another human being's work. Nothing can be harder to depict honestly and constructively when reviewing a film. And, full disclosure, as life would have it, a couple of years later, in my screenwriting college course in college, when the professor introduced himself and mentioned a tiny film he had made years before (the director is Ramin Serry and the film MARYAM), I felt as if touched by fate, and as if Ebert was a humble agent of that force. There I was, engaging a contemporary artist for the first time, and already I felt as if I knew something of the humanity of that person. Granted, that would only be so if the film was any good, but what other critic can say to have facilitated experiences like that for his/her readers?

There is a moment, late into LIFE ITSELF when we are shown a full theater where the audience stands up and all give Ebert and his wife Chaz the thumbs up. That gesture is repeated throughout the film, and given in earnest by Ebert even at his most trying of times when battling cancer and particularly in his final days. The gesture, as it is used more and more in the film, becomes profoundly naive, courageous and asks us to look at life and at what other human beings produce, not to judge it and review it, but to engage it with full empathy and really step outside of ourselves to contemplate another's life. No film, as great or as conventional as it can be, could ask for more.


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