Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The man who loved movies”

Posted on April 5, 2013


Farewell, Roger Ebert. Your work in the field of film criticism will always be remembered with two enthusiastic thumbs up.

As a film critic for an English daily, you’re sometimes asked: “Why review masala movies?” The misbegotten implication is that these lowest-common-denominator films are meant for people who do not analyse or deconstruct cinema, people who do not have any interest in looking at films as part of a continuum. These audiences just want to entertain themselves for a couple of hours. The implicit accusation in that question is that a literate critic cannot “lower” himself to the level of the lowest-common-denominator audience – his highbrow tastes and background are at odds with the masses for whom these movie are made. If this theory were put into practice, then The New York Times would not deign to review, say, an Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry comedy, for the fans of these actors certainly aren’t interested in what AO Scott or Manohla Dargis have to say. And the tabloid Tamil press would not bother to engage with a Hey Ram either.

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This observation also overlooks the fact that every critic is a lover of cinema, a lover of all kinds of cinema, and therefore has inside him a number of cinema-loving personalities: the lover of children’s films who’s capable of viewing a Pixar feature for what it is, the lover of middle-of-the-road cinema who welcomes a Kai Po Che, a lover of Soviet art cinema who’s capable of chewing on a glacially paced Tarkovsky production, and yes, a lover of masala movies who will  summon up his inner wolf-whistler during a great masala moment. (The fact that a critic trashes a masala movie doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like masala movies; merely that this particular masala movie was found lacking.) And his views aren’t always about directing people to theatres, but an attempt to contextualise and record for posterity a pop-culture event. Such a film was released. This is what it was about. This is the kind of film it was, harking back to the tropes of this older film and that other one. And so on.

Few people embodied these aspects of criticism better than Roger Ebert, who loved cinema, all kinds of cinema. He wasn’t the most consistently dazzling writer, even if, when he put his mind to it, he could conjure up a great sentence like this one about the emptiness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “[The film] is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” He wasn’t particularly useful as a thinker about cinema either, someone who would propound a theory about, say, auteurs, the way Andrew Sarris did. And he wouldn’t really open your mind about a movie the way Pauline Kael did, entering its world so completely that her insights (to use her famous phrase from her review of The Godfather, Part II) would expand in your head like a soft bullet. But week after week, he registered his thoughts on everything from the massiest blockbuster to the quietest art-house production, and it for this passion for his profession, this commitment, that he will be remembered.

This is not to say that Ebert was a shallow critic. His most significant contribution to his field may be his write-ups on Great Movies, where he’d locate a film in its historical context and talk about plot and characters and technical achievements, and thus introduce the film to people who hadn’t heard about it. (This is how his review of Rashomon began: “Shortly before filming was to begin on [the film], Akira Kurosawa’s three assistant directors came to see him. They were unhappy. They didn’t understand the story.”) But a lot of critics do this. Why, then, is Ebert’s contribution so special? Because he was a superstar critic with millions of followers – not just intellectuals who latched on to Woody Allen’s Kierkegaard allusions, but regular-Joe moviegoers – and by talking about these great movies in his chatty style, he erased the forbidding aura around them. He made you feel that you could watch Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight even if you didn’t know what Rosebud meant. He made these movies accessible.

And despite the fact that the very same regular-Joe moviegoers didn’t care about his opinion on the review-proof blockbusters, Ebert continued to put out his thoughts on them. About Michael Bay’s Armageddon, he wrote, “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” Audiences didn’t care. The film was the second highest moneymaker of 1998 in the US, grossing over $200 million. And yet, Ebert’s position wasn’t undermined. Another film released the same year, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, showed how influential the critic had become, how hated by some filmmakers. The film featured a New York mayor named… Ebert, and his real-life counterpart notes, “[He makes every possible wrong decision… and the adviser eventually gives thumbs-down to his reelection campaign. These characters are a reaction by Emmerich… to negative [Gene] Siskel and Ebert reviews of their earlier movies… but they let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla.” Only, he was never the bug. He was the Godzilla of film criticism.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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