Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
Just one meeting with Roger Ebert and he became your friend for life. It didn’t matter that you didn’t live in the same city or even on the same continent, he was always the friend you could take to the movies. He would share your popcorn and Cola, discuss the finer points of a good movie (or even a bad one), understand what made you cry or laugh at the movies, and make you marvel at how effortlessly he understood cinema.
Ebert became the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and from then on, column after column, movie after movie, book after book, he took four generations of movie watchers to the movies. I first met Ebert when I read his review of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a dog-eared book given by a friend called 100 Great Movies. Here’s what he had to say about 2001, “The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations.”
One could say the same about his reviews. They could reference western classical music or high school Latin, but would not contain a superfluous word, opinion or view that could distract our attention. In about 10 paragraphs, he could discuss the plot of the movie, analyze it to the last micro reel and give the essence of the movie, and leave the rest for us, as he so beautifully put it for Kubrick, “to contemplate, to inhabit our imaginations”.
He could sometimes unnervingly catch the audience’s pulse, about movies that could be so original that they seemed baffling. On the Hungarian auteur BelaTarr’sWerckmeister Harmonies, Ebert writes, “BelaTarr’sWerckmeister Harmonies is maddening if you are not in sympathy with it, mesmerizing if you are. If you have not walked out after 20 or 30 minutes, you will thereafter not be able to move from your seat.” He goes on: “…BelaTarr’s style seems to be an attempt to regard his characters with great intensity and respect, to observe them without jostling them, to follow unobtrusively as they move through their worlds, which look so ordinary and are so awesome, like ours.”
This eerily reflects in his writing, which, while analyzing a movie, was never opinionated, and was always honest to its, well, ordinary readers. The secret of his success as a critic was that he made film criticism accessible to those who did not even understand it as such. Unlike other critics, who would write preachy reviews with obscure references, Ebert would include personal anecdotes, turn reviews into poems, scripts, even open letters.
He was your doppelganger at the movies, viewing the movie as it might be playing out in your mind. He would review a film as if describing it to a friend, as he did for the Oscar award-winning Argo: “It has the classic values of a Hollywood thriller. It is ‘based on a true story’. Yes, it is.”
Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies is maddening if you are not in sympathy with it, mesmerizing if you are. If you have not walked out after 20 or 30 minutes, you will thereafter not be able to move from your seat
He never became jaded, never lost his puckish sense of humour and never became, what could construe the death knell for film critics, old fashioned. He could use the word “thanatophile” and “yummy” in the same review (he was reviewing Twilight). Or, for instance, while reviewing the 1997 movie Spice World about the pop group Spice Girls, he wrote, “The Spice Girls are easier to tell apart than the Mutant Ninja Turtles, but that is small consolation. What can you say about five women whose principal distinguishing characteristic is that they have different names? They occupy Spice World as if they were watching it. They’re so detached they can’t even successfully lip-synch their own songs.”
He could make you love the movies he loved and sometimes even the ones he didn’t, as one can see from his bestselling books, one with the most intriguing title: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.
His 200 reviews a year were syndicated in about 200 newspapers, his TV show with fellow critic Gene Siskel received a record viewership, and he was the first film critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Actually, Ebert liked to cram a lot into his life. There were the prolific reviews, the TV show, the books, the film festival (Ebertfest), the scripts, the wonderful blog, and, if that wasn’t enough, he was an inspiring teacher and lecturer of movies at the University of Chicago.
Even when cancer robbed him of his voice, it didn’t rob him of enjoyment of life and of the movies. In fact, it made him even more productive — he wrote more reviews in the final year of his career than in any of the previous 45.
In the last post on his blog, just two days before his death, he talked about a “leave of presence” — about how he could now review only the films he wanted to review and concentrate on his future projects. He ended it with, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Roger Ebert: friend, philosopher, guide and film critic. You will be missed. Yes, you will.