Friday, February 26, 2010

Roger Ebert, Louder Than Ever

If you spend anytime at all online, you’ve probably already come across the recent Esquire profile of Roger Ebert. The attention-getter is the photo, which is startling and unnerving. I had read that Ebert, after several surgeries, had lost the ability to eat, drink, and speak. But his facial disfigurement, in addition to its other power, leaves him unrecognizable. I don’t think I would have been able to name him if I didn’t know who it was.

The piece sometimes goes heavy on the kind of breathless sentences that signify Glossy Magazine Profundity (“His last words weren't recorded. There was just his voice, and then there wasn't.”), though in this case the tone is more appropriate than usual.

Roger Ebert has been more visible than ever lately, while remaining invisible. His Twitter page is probably the most active one that I follow. He still reviews several movies a week for the Chicago Sun-Times. And his blog is constantly (and lengthily) updated. (Among other recent activity, he wrote about his reaction to the Esquire piece.) This got me thinking about how the Internet might really be an improvement in some ways, and though I’m sure Ebert would gladly reverse the circumstances that led him to be the example of this, he’s the example nonetheless. He’s a person who I mostly saw on TV when I was young, and he seemed like an averagely smart guy who knew a lot about movies. But a TV show isn’t the best place to express intelligence. His writing is better than I would have thought, and now he gets to do that exclusively, to live on as a vocal part of the culture in a way that would have been impossible before the web. And whereas healthy kids sitting inside online all day, and calling that their "social life" is depressing, for someone like Ebert it is a thriving social life and the only (widely communicative) one he could really have. As Jacob Silverman put it:
Clearly Roger Ebert’s ability to communicate in these diverse modes—though nearly all, notably, rely on the written word—would be far less only a decade ago. The internet has become his oasis and an equalizer, placing him on level ground with the thousands of fans, friends, colleagues, and strangers with whom he communicates. He has leveraged technology to express himself nearly to the point of stream-of-consciousness, assembling a shifting collage of opinion and conversation.
(My friend Miles also wrote movingly about Ebert, mortality, and religion, in a post in which he manages to name-check St. Peter, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and LeBron James.)

What’s great about all this is that Ebert is as cantankerous as ever, willing to get into arguments about politics and movies and the rest. His blog posts often attract several hundred comments. So in that conversational spirit, I’ll address his recent post about the decade’s best movies. His No. 1 is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which I couldn’t stand. (That's an awful title, for starters.)

That might be too harsh, but it certainly wouldn’t make a list of my top 10—or 100—movies of the decade. Ebert writes that it, “intends no less than to evoke the strategies we use to live our lives.” That might be true, but that only establishes its intentions, not how well it fulfills them. He goes on to say that “The mind is a concern in all [Kaufman’s] screenplays, but in Synecdoche, his first film as a director, he makes it his subject, and what huge ambition that demonstrates.” He’s right that it shows ambition, but Kaufman always has, and I’m not sure that making his investigations of the mind more explicit is the best way of channeling that ambition. I have a good friend who used to tell me that she thinks all great books are, on some level, about writing. That their concerns can be seen in the light of that act. If that’s true, I think the greater accomplishment is making those themes clear (or at least meaningful) without making them explicit. Likewise, I think it’s true that Kaufman’s movies have all been about the mind—how the mind remembers, how it creates, how it deals with others’ minds—and what I didn’t like about Synecdoche was how obvious those themes were.

Ebert writes: “Very few people live their lives on one stage, in one persona, wearing one costume. We play different characters. We know this and accept it.” That’s true. But it’s also obvious. Kaufman may dress it up, but I don’t see it as profound; at least not in the way it was presented in this case. There were other things I didn’t like about it—the humor seemed strained, a couple of sentimental scenes were too sentimental (even for me), and overall it seemed like the concept was always staring at me as a concept, never adequately making its way as a film. Not to mention that in my opinion—which could be expanded on at some point, I suppose—the more distinct a stylistic vision (and narrow a thematic vision) a filmmaker has (Wes Anderson, Kaufman, et al.), the more danger they have of parodying themselves over time, which I think Kaufman did more than his share of here.

At the end of that post about his favorite movies of the decade, Ebert wrote this, which I like (and can apply, in my humble way, to the music and movie lists that I’ve shared on this blog):
No lists have deep significance, but even less lists composed to satisfy an imaginary jury of fellow critics. My jury resides within. I know how I feel.

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk. I have quoted it so frequently that some readers must be weary of it, but it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn't make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.


Blogger Johannes said...

Great post. I also read this article and found the picture startling. I've always been a bit Ebert fan and read his reviews regularly, both because i'm curious about the movies, and because it interests me greatly to see how a film expert views these movies. He's also damn funny. I've laughed out loud many times reading snarky or delightfully sarcastic remarks about some film. I also like that he gives them all a chance. He once said something like "Everytime I go to watch a film I hope to have a great time at the movies. Simple.

i liked the note he penned and was a photo in the article that said something like "don't feel sorry for me. This has led to an explosion of writing." Or something close to that.

I also hated Synecdoche, New York. Jeez what a mess. I only got about 3/4 through. Life's too short. I'm shocked he liked it so much, but i guess you really have to be in the right mind set to be receptive to such a cerebrally involved film. Personally i don't think i would have survived the entire movie without committing suicide a la flaming-Buddhist-monk-Vietnam-protestor.

I may start following his blog or twitter, which i've yet to see.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I agree. I read his website regularly. Don't always agree with him, but I like his writing. I have noticed a difference in his ratings since he got sick. He does seem more generous in his ratings now. Not what I necessarily want in a critic, but I still like to read what he's got to say. I own both of his "Great Movies" books and refer to them often. He has a third volume coming out soon.

4:07 PM  

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