Sunday, April 07, 2013

When Writers You Love, Leave You…

I am not sure if you have ever felt grief over the death of a public personality – one that you haven’t even met.

I have a few times in my life.

The first time it happened was when I learnt about the passing of M. S. Subbulakshmi - I was shocked at my own reaction to the news, I was surprised that I cared so much about her, that I felt real sadness – the kind that for a moment or two makes you lose balance and lumps up your throat, and you quickly fight tears so that the person next to you doesn’t notice that you have lost it. I, like pretty much every other middle class kid growing up in Chennai, grew up listening to her Venkatesa Suprabatham, Barathiyar songs and other numbers. And she had a pleasing demeanor and all. But I never realized that I cared for MS so much. Until that day.

The second time it happened to me was when a writer whom I worshipped (David Foster Wallace) went and hanged himself. I was devastated. Till then, I followed every single word of his non-fiction writing, and used to diligently check for new articles. When I found out one day that he had written a long article about Roger Federer, I jumped up in joy, as two Gods in my universe were meeting in some form, and I can read about it. I remember printing out that article (15 odd pages) and rushing to the coffee shop and reading it. It was a fantastic day! And then one day, DFW was not there. I cursed him. I dissed him. And then slowly came to terms with the face that I won’t be able to hear his voice, which was actually my own voice (his writing was always like that – it seemed like he somehow got into my head and found out how I would feel about things and wrote it), in my head. It was a loss I could have lived without.

The third time it happened to me was last week. When I learnt about the passing away of the film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert has been a constant companion, discussion partner, and muse for nearly 10 years now. And he is no more – it kills me to realize that there won’t be one more of his reviews waiting for me when I wake up on a Friday morning or one more of his ramblings on some random topic on his blog. It physically hurts me when I think about a world that will not have anymore of Ebert’s new words in it.

The first time I heard Ebert’s name was when my friend Ritesh asked me if I read his reviews, one morning when we were both headed to attend a seminar in grad school. Once I got back to my office, and read one of his reviews. That was the start of a beautiful friendship. My research productivity must have seriously suffered for the next few months (only my PhD advisor can stand testimony). From that day, I waded through his website, obsessively and with urgency, frantically catching up, searching for reviews of movies I had watched, of directors I respected, of movies I knew for sure that I would never watch. He was the best guide there was. And one of the biggest advantages he had over almost any other film critics was that he reviewed pretty much every single movie that was released in the US, over three decades. Which also included a healthy dose of independent and foreign movies. He was the only film critic for the Chicago Suntimes since 1967 - which meant that his website, which archived all his reviews, will most probably throw out an Ebert review of a movie title you are looking for.

A movie review was never just about the movies, when Ebert wrote it. He used it as a platform to discuss life, quirks, priorities, used it as an opportunity to introduce the reader to other works of the director and other films with related themes. He loved books, and never missed an opportunity to plug his favourite books and authors. He gently broadened the knowledgebase of his readers. That was such a boon for a novice like me. My introduction to English literature was almost nil when I started reading Ebert. (I read my first English novel at the age of 19 – and it was a Sidney Sheldon novel – so, you see I am not being modest when I say novice.) I followed his leads like a hound in a pheasant hunt. And when you are entering a new field, it always helps to have good advise and reliable mentors – Ebert was all of that and more – I trusted his judgment. And he rarely failed me. I remember reading one of his reviews where he mentioned “A Fan’s Notes” by Fred Exley and said something like - if you find a person who has read this book in a party, then you both will exchange knowing smiles and chat away about the book for a long time. (So, now you see how the sly son of a bitch made you run after a book and read it, rather than just say that it is a great book that you should read.) And run I did. And found the book (in a beautiful Modern Library production) in my university library and read it. A few years into reading Ebert and following up on his suggestions, I no longer felt like an outsider and books and titles and authors ceased to appear threatening or intimidating.

Ritesh and I practiced a routine for almost four years: On a Friday morning, read up on all of Ebert’s new reviews, watch a reviewed movie or two that weekend, and have lengthy discussions the following Monday – what Ebert got right, what he missed. We were grudgingly happy when Ebert got it right. We were even happier when we disagreed with Ebert and thought he got it wrong (well, if He could get it wrong, then…there was hope for mere mortals). We shook our heads in disbelief and smiled when Ebert (the old fart!) called Frances McDormand a babe and Emily Watson an emerging babe (or something like that) in one of his Harry Potter reviews. This was our film club, our film school. Ebert was the professor we loved to love and loved to hate.

As it was bound to happen, after a few years of reading Ebert, I wanted to be Ebert – in the sense that I wanted to write film reviews as well. A couple of failed attempts later, I did manage to write my first film review – for a campus newspaper. I was super proud to see my byline appear in print – I have only Ebert to thank for that. I continued to write half a dozen more reviews for the paper and more on my blog. It not only helped me think more about movies – but also started me off into writing. Somewhere along the process of writing reviews and continuing to follow Ebert, some unsettling questions did float up. One dis-spiriting aspect about reading Ebert, while attempting to write on your own, was – how incredibly prolific he was – and how words and thoughts seemed to tumble out of him effortlessly, in such huge volumes. How can anyone human being be so productive, and more importantly, what that made me? Another, but more fundamental question that bothered me was - all this – the act of writing about movies, many times subjectively based on your own reactions to the movie, sometimes about movies that don’t deserve to be watched at all, is kind of meaningless. First of all, you are not creating anything new – you are feeding off what other people have created. And just riffing your opinions on it – how constructive can that be?

I did not find answers to these questions immediately. But answers did appear,in the due course of time. As far as Ebert’s productivity goes – my conclusion is – he is prolific because he is prolific. He practices his art so much, that he gets good at it even while practicing it. And it all adds up – the years and years of producing hundreds of reviews – you are bound to get better at it. The more you draw the more it secretes. And there is the snowballing effect as well. And art criticism does have its place in the world. It helps people engage with a work of art – it helps people think through their emotions, to come to terms with certain things, and form opinions, a good reviewer also guides the reader/viewer. When there is lot of junk being created in the world, alongside movies that are worth watching – the world sometimes needs a loud and articulate voice to enunciate why a movie is worth watching and call junk as junk. When people are afraid to prioritize or call a spade a spade, a critic should do the job for them.

And that also brings me to what I think Ebert’s biggest legacy/impact is. I don’t think he was the best movie reviewer there was. Sometimes, he completely misses the point. Sometimes, things are way above his league – read the review of Gandhi by Ebert and Pauline Kael – as an Indian I can tell Pauline Kael’s review was far more truer and she ferrets out aspects of the film that one she has exposed, will fundamentally alter the way you will think about the movie again – that is the power of a great reviewer. But, we all have bad days, and there are always things that are above our league.

But, there are two things that are enduring about Ebert. First, he was fearless about engaging with new things, new themes, new directors. He had an open mind for ideas, for experiences. Even when they challenged him, and he didn’t understand them fully, he withstood it and produced a review that grappled with his ambivalence and confusion openly. The second lesson I derive from his life is – how it pays off to be articulate. The world is filled with conflict. I don’t just mean the wars and armed conflict. I also mean conflict of ideas, ideologies, religions, perspectives. In such a world, people who are most effective are the ones who can communicate their thoughts and convince others of their merits. And for this, it most certainly helps to be articulate - about your thoughts, your ideas, your confusions, your opinions. That is all a good movie review really does. Even when I thought Ebert was being pea-brained about some issues, I was engaging with him – I was debating and refuting his point – his victory is just the fact that he had managed to engage me, and I was paying him attention. That is what articulate people get – other people’s attention. The more effective you are at it, the more effective you are in life itself. And the hopeful part is, it is a skill that is cultivable. And you can get better with practice. When you have written 7000 reviews, it becomes easier, as Ebert has proved, to write the 7001st review. The more you draw from the well, the more it secretes – not the other way around.

Friday mornings will always be a little empty for me, without Ebert’s voice in my head, for the rest of my life. But, I can write this blogpost and let you know how I feel about it – only because Ebert taught me to do it. To write movie reviews. To express my opinions, my fears, my confusions and my sense of loss.


Vibhor said...

Since the day you introduced me to Ebert. I wouldn't say that I followed him as religiously as you did. But, whenever, I wasn't not sure about the movie, whether it is worth watching, I always read Ebert's review before deciding to spend time to watch that movie. Also, when I watched a movie and something bothered me about it, I would go and read his review, he would have almost always picked up that point and discussed it for me in his review for me to understand. This was the greatness of the man, who helped novice movie watchers like me understand the subtleties of a movie.

Here is to hoping that some other reviewer in near future follows Ebert's footsteps help people understand movies.

nmagesh said...

Vibhor - I completely agree - one of the main reasons for his wide readership is his accessibility. He never spoke down or spoke up. He just relayed his thoughts. In that beautifully clear prose of his.

Ritesh Tipnis said...

Fantastic, fantastic post. I agree with every word and know exactly what you mean.

Aravind Datta said...

wow!! i never read anything beyond 10 lines.. :-).. or say.. 5 lines.. :-). I read it because you wrote it. It was fantastic! I didn't know who Ebert was inspite of the fact that he wrote 7k reviews! (phew). I know who he is.. now.

Regarding MS, in a year, I spend atleast 300 days listening to MS. She is second to none.


magesh said...

Ritesh - Thanks. You know better than anyone what it was like and what Ebert meant to us!

Aravind - Thanks a lot for reading it and for the compliments! Actually, the final count of his reviews is somewhere close to 10,000. In the last year alone, apparently he had written 300+ reviews. Regarding MS - it is pure bliss listening to her. One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't get to attend one of her concerts - she even once performed at a temple near my school, and I missed it for some stupid reason - I kick myself for that often.