Friday, April 5, 2013

Lessons from Roger

Some of this post is filled with things I learned directly from watching or reading Roger Ebert and some of it is just notions I suspect he would approve of. Even this is said with a bit of cautious optimism. I didn't know Roger so I can only speculate on the sorts of things he might like based on his public persona. This is perhaps a lesson in and of itself. Celebrity is always held at a distance. You might think you know, but you don't; not really.I first watched Siskel & Ebert in 1982 or 1983. I'm not sure which. From that moment on, Roger Ebert had a real and ongoing effect on my life, in that he altered the way I approached the world. I'd say Gene Siskel had a similar effect except that he died in 1999 while Roger continued his work tirelessly for the next 14 years. He had far more opportunity to influence me. Being a chubby bespectacled guy myself, I indentified more with Roger from an early age. While it would be awhile before I was free to watch whatever movies I wanted, once we got HBO I would try to catch as many of the two-thumbs up movies as I could, although R rated films were a little dicey in our house and HBO isn't exactly big on art house fare. It wasn't until I went to college and had a roommate with a VCR that my horizons opened. In later years, particularly between the ages of 30-35, I was a frequent renter of the classics. I wouldn't say I saw even 10% of "the canon" (whatever that is), but I did OK.

The Siskel & Ebert model of TV commentary was instructive. It seems that it is possible for two people to disagree, sometimes in the most agressive and spectacular fashion, and for neither of them to be wrong. Two people coming from equally informed positions may come to opinions of diametrical opposition, while never casting doubt on either's right to come to that position. OK, maybe they cast SOME doubt while in the midst of making their points, but even this can often be seen in a spirit of jovial good will. As long as, when the debate is concluded, you go your own ways without losing the respect that caused you to care about the other person's opinion in the first place, all is well.

Opinion is a tricky beast. While every movie review is just some joker's opinion, all opinions are not created equal. Even if someone else's opinion is more informed than yours, you are still entitled to have one. Roger was so effective at conveying his opinions that he would inspire a certain defensive agony in those who disagreed with him. This was particularly true when it came to horror movies and video games, whose admirers are so personally invested in the media that any suggestion that they might be able to do better was met, not with any personal insight or reflection, but anger and vitriol. If my opinion differs from yours and this causes you angst, you might consider whether you have thought through your own opinion carefully enough. Every idea that passes through our brains deserves reconsideration. If you can honestly say that you've considered all of the angles (and most carefully considered the possibility that you might be wrong) and your only conclusion is that your opinion stands, then there is no need to feel intimidated by anyone else's. If the intimidation comes from the way the opinion is presented, if the opposition is more articulate and even florid that you can be, this is just a matter of style. You are not wrong just because you don't have the writing chops, because another person has a more philosophically oriented style, or because they are simply more literate than you.

Literacy is more than the ability to read. It is the possession of a certain core set of facts and mental tools which allow one to process information within a certain cultural tradition. A literate opinion always has more meaning than a non-literate opinion. I have liked a great many "art" films, but I never cared for Citizen Kane. However, I would hesitate to debate its quality with someone who was truly "film literate" as I just haven't built up the background to do so effectively. I'm not so far behind. I have watched "The Seventh Seal" and "My Dinner With Andre" more times than is probably healthy. I should branch out more "literate," but I tend to "go home to mama" when it comes to movies. I consider myself at least partially literate in this way, but if I was willing to put in the work...maybe actually watch some of the great films instead of just meaning to watch level of literacy might allow me to have the discussion about Citizen Kane. It doesn't mean I have to LIKE the "great" movies or even understand them, but it's important to try.

Roger was perhaps the most widely distributed public intellectual of the past 50 years. There were probably more insightful minds and there were probably more popular personalities. He made it OK to be both. Most people are never going to be overtly intellectual and that's OK. There is room is this ridiculous world for a wide variety of personalities. He was only what he was. Some people view public intellectualism as an automatic rejoinder to the rest of the world ("I'm smart so therefore you must be dumb."). I never got this feeling from Roger. The only time he engaged in name calling was when Greedo shot first, so to speak. He was perfectly capable of wielding his wit as a weapon, but he seemed to do so reluctantly. The nature of his business was to call people on the carpet for having produced substandard work as he saw and defined it within the dequestered universe of his own writing. But saying someone produced a bad movie is not to say that that person is only capable of producing bad movies. Rather, it is to say that they can do better and one would not suggest you could do better if they did not think you were capable of doing so. Now, repeat offenders, as it were, might earn a little extra scorn, but if Roger could make nice with Vincent Gallo, he could do so with anyone. The point is that one should never hesitate to reveal themselves before the world, in all of their splendor, just because someone else's facility with language makes them feel inadequate.

Intellectualism is not an absolute and can be used to argue for its own limits. One could make a perfectly valid argument that it's OK to enjoy an entertainment for the sake of entertainment. However, the same person might also conclude that we should always strive for excellence. For all of his occasional undeserved reputation for only liking the sorts of movies that only critics like, Ebert gave four star reviews to films as varied as Spider-Man 2, A Prarie Home Companion, The Passion of the Christ, the anime film Spirited Away, and Jack Black's School of Rock. There's no pattern there, other than a desire to do whatever it is one is called to do in the most effective way possible. You're going to make a movie about Jesus Christ? It's not enough that it be about Jesus, but it better be the best film about Jesus you feel you can make. Spider-man? Same deal.

The whole deal with the stars and "two thumbs up" was just there for the sake of marketing. No one could reasonably conclude that Ebert wasn't a genius at marketing himself. I was going to do this as a top-ten kind of thing ("10 things I learned from Roger Ebert"), but a ranked list is something of a pointless excercise when there are no objective measurements for making the rankings. This was something Ebert commented on frequently. There's nothing objective about ranking films and there never could be. The same would be true for literature, music, or any other creative work. While it's possible in a general sense to categorize items and to say "these 10 movies are among the best of the year", for example, to say one is #1, but another is only #7 is meaningless. It's well worth celebrating the best of our accomplishments as human beings, but we can do this without naming something first among equals.

In the midst of significant roadblocks which took away his ability to eat and speak, things we all clearly take for granted, Roger Ebert continued working at a high level and maintained a passion for life. A man with a public illness forces us to confront our prejudices in a very direct way. Being the well-read, witty, and mentally capable fellow Ebert was, when his illness forced his outward appearance to, we were forced to give him his due in a way that we might not have were he someone we met on the street. There was a time in my life where I was confronted on a relatively regular basis with a person who I did not know personally (so I had no idea of his accomplishments or capabilities) and whose appearance was extremely disquieting due to a medical condition. While I never confronted or made fun of this person, I looked away and frankly found my encounters with him to be rather frightening. In my heart, I am sure that I never even considered giving him his due as a human being. He could have been a wonderful person for all I knew, but I was a typical human being and typical human beings do not like to be confronted with illness and disfigurement. I don't remember the exact time or source, but I recall an article or blog from fairly early on in Ebert's illness where he spoke about the need to put a public face to illness and to not force people to hide away from the world because people found them unpleasant to look at. This sort of "prejudice of comfort" is certainly not good for the person being hidden away and is not good for society, which loses whatever contributions that person may have made. Roger, having being notable and revered prior to his illness, was in a very good position to throw this prejudice in front of us, as if to say "You know who I am and what I can do. Look away if you want to, but you have no excuse. It's all on you."

"And the planet spins, and the world goes 'round and 'round." That's a line from a song from Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" (1977) and it seems apropos. Roger Ebert gave "New York, New York" a three star review saying, "'New York, New York' never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we're left with a good time. In other words: Abandon your expectations of an orderly plot, and you'll end up humming the title song." Some days this seems like the best we can hope for out of life. He said later in life, in his memoirs "...if at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

"Sometimes you're happy and sometimes you're sad, but the world goes 'round..."