Thursday, April 4, 2013

Special Rumbles: Lessons From Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Despite yesterday's news regarding his health, there was no part of me that was in any way prepared for writing up several thoughts regarding the importance of one Roger Ebert in my social, and written life. To be completely fair, noone is truly prepared for such a thing. But to give a complete charting of just how important one person's views can be toward so many angles of another's life, it is also something possibly foolhardy to consider. But what I can best deliver in a timely, and hopefully raw fashion, is to keep beacons glowing in the name of what makes criticism so important to not merely film, but to human culture as a whole. Much like how achaeologists derive theory from findings and disparate elements available, there is a deep importance toward our collective ability to see beyond mere positives and negatives. To dole out how something makes us feel, rather than merely take in everything at face value wthout second thought, or future evaluation. And there were fewer voices available to so many of us in the broadcast age with such a reverence for the unusual, and the accessible than Ebert, a man who's very presence on television or in print, exuded a yearning to understand not only an evolving artform, but a rapidly morphing world.

Growing up a remarkably addicted child of movies, Ebert's views on At The Movies remained an integral part of my weekend viewing diet. To be in my presence throughout a majority of the late 1980s meant that this ritual was an expected norm. And it wasn't merely because of access to clips of the latest releases, and whether or not they received a thumbs up or down, but rather my focus was largely on how both Gene Siskel & Ebert went from gentle confirmation to outright verbal blitzkrieg in mere minutes, and still retain a fair amount of sympatico by the end of each episode. And despite the often whispered revelation that the duo in fact didn't get along well outside the theater for a time, it was endlessly exciting to see such worldviews interconnect with such energy from their reaction to something as commonly seen as diversion as film. They spoke a mature form of a language I long wanted to be able to grasp, even as I grappled with the often humiliating trial known as grade school.

Moreso than any other televised movie critic, there was an inherent relatability to the way Ebert examined movies that told me, "I could do that". In fact, I vividly remember recording my first movie review "podcast" with my best friend by way of cassette tape, capturing our reviews of movies like Robocop & Rocky IV. This went even further come the early 1990s, when a good high school friend of mine fand I wrote a "He Said, She Said" column for our local newspaper's experimental "youth" section. Sharing impressions was a major part of what drove me to write, and perhaps it seemed inevitable that japanese cartoons would eventually follow. It wasn't enough for me to merely watch something and forget about it in preparation for the next life trial, it was vital that I take it down somewhere, or talk it out with a fellow weirdo. Discourse was on the brain from a very early point, and Ebert was unquestionably a large part of why.

And as I mentioned, growing up the only kid in a nearly 40-mile radius who was halfway interested in cartoons from across the ocean, as well as weird movies from other parts of the world, it was great to have someone on TV with the openness & enthusiasm he did. Whether it be his surprising segment on AKIRA, or opening up about Miyazaki's works, it was strengthening to see someone in the grand sphere talking about something so many were so quick to write off in those days. In fact when they happened (which was not at all often), it was this brief moment of relief that came over me. A reminder that I had indeed run into something that spoke to far more than a small niche of strange kids/adults, and that it was something worthy of merit on a world's stage. A confirmation that art could be found just about anywhere as long as one is taking that extra moment to look.

Among the more important lessons I took away from him being such a presence in my life, was that articulation was vital toward greater connection between very different types.  That it wasn't enough to merely say your piece, and abandon room for further discussion. Walls were malleable and filled with gaps and curves which can shift and bend based on shared experience. That the wheel must continue to turn in the name of a healthier ecosystem. And while differences are an inevitability, they are also what make us so valuable to others. Enthusiasm for art, idea & expression flowed naturally through him, and it was infectious, especially when meeting new people who shared a similar affinity for the language.

And to be even more on the even side, it wasn't as if I agreed with his views all the time. In fact, a there were multiple instances where I simply didn't understand where he was coming from with many films that have since become important in the eyes of the public. For instance, I have never, and likely will never understand his evisceration of Blue Velvet (1986). But perhaps therein lies the greatest lesson; that critique of any kind is less about the object being reviewed, and often more about the person doing the review, and the others they are reaching out to. It's continued communication in celebration of something shared, also made by human hands. There is something inherently natural about reacting to the world, and examining the results on an individualistic basis. Just as no two people will see the same sunset in the same way, there is something important about the ability to take a human work, and derive a nebula of thought.It is within this important activity that our futures are founded, and universes are rendered endless.

But another really important thing I learned by way of watching and reading him, was that I didn't have to agree with a person's assessments, and maintain respect. That it was indeed possible to trade barbed differences upon anything, and still seek to understand the other person, which should be one of our greater goals as a species. Ebert saw human civilization as a triumph, and there is no triumph without regard to the past, and at its most primal -- that is the cinema's greatest gift to all of us.

That is what I'd like to believe anyway.

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