Roger Ebert passed away today; a larger than life literary figure who instructed me how to enjoy art, ever since I came to understand art as an entity.
My story goes back to the mid-80s. Like hoards of his fans, I became familiar with him watching his movie review show with Gene Siskel, "At the Movies". Back then, I was just in my early teens in Southern California, and didn't have much of a concept of reviewing movies, let alone enjoying the fight to praise or condemn them through "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down". It was fun to watch Siskel and Ebert of two rival Chicago newspapers, seated at the theater balcony, jabbing criticisms at each other, trying to prove their tastes. One Ebert quote I remember from those days (in the case of Return to Oz): "Never remake classics!"
We returned to Iran during that time, and movies, good movies, were hard to come by. So I lost touch with Ebert (and great film criticism) for more than 10 years. Then in the mid 90s, a software called "Cinemania", which was a CD compilation of hundreds of movie reviews by Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, was published. In 1998, Tehran universities became some of the first places in the country to offer home internet access, and every Friday, I would devour Ebert's most recent reviews from his website. He was back in my life.
Since that year, I've been checking his writings on his website, at least two to three times a week, every week, for the past 15 years, and his Facebook page at least every 2-3 days, for the past couple of years. I know this was a unilateral relationship, but have you checked on your Mom, your Dad, your brother or sister, twice a week, for 15 years - even if it's unilateral?
The skill and beauty of Ebert's writings, even when I entirely disagreed with his views, was unsurpassed by others. The significant difference I found in his writings, was that he spoke from the heart - extremely subjective. When he spoke of art, he wrote the reasons why he enjoyed it, not why others thought it was important. He never faked the facade of a pseudo-intellectual. I (like many others) wondered why he gave Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace three and a half stars, or hated Gladiator. But that was his style: he just wrote what he felt. He never fell into the trap many movie or art critics fall into.
"People sometimes ask me what a certain image in a movie "symbolized." The answer is: "For you? Nothing, or you wouldn't be asking the question." "
Purely subjective. If you couldn't connect with a movie, that movie was not for you, and vice-versa. And don't let anybody persuade you otherwise.
In the meantime, Gene Siskel died of brain cancer, I came to the US, started a medical residency in New York, and continued my training in Ohio. Ebert had a "Movie Answer Man" column on his website, where he answered all sorts of fan questions about movies. I felt something wasn't right in his review of Pixar's The Incredibles. I wrote to him, and he responded:
Q: In your review on "The Incredibles," you mentioned that the character Edna Mode was inspired by Q from the Bond movies. I'm pretty sure she was more based on the facial features and occupation of Edith Head, the Oscar-winning costume designer.
Mohsen Ghofrani, North Canton, Ohio
A: J. Oyen of San Mateo, Calif., adds: "Edna's uncanny resemblance to Hitchcock's favorite costume designer and the fact that Edna is a world famous clothes designer in the movie seems to support the Edith Head connection."
I am persuaded Edith Head is the inspiration for the character, but that her role has been enriched by Q behavior.
Imagine the humility of Mr. Movie Encyclopedia. A critic who was writing movie reviews before I was even born.
A few days later, John Zimmerman, a dear friend and co-resident from my days in New York, emailed me the above link, asking: "Is this you?"
Knowing my love for movies, John encouraged me to start a movie review blog. He helped me design "Mo-Blog", and devise (to my knowledge) a first-ever movie rating system for it.
Case in point: the initial reasons this blog came to be, was a two-line response by Roger Ebert, and the help of a friend. That's how people change other people's lives. Little by little.
Years passed. Life caught up with me, and I had to stop blogging after a 20-month stint. Then I restarted again 3 years ago, and recently changed the name to "The Mo-View". And through the years I've been asking myself: What if Ebert hadn't responded to my criticism?
Ebert used to have a fun activity on his Facebook page. He would post an actor or director or producer's picture he had taken himself at some film festival, and ask his followers to guess who that person was. Often it would be a race between people to see who could guess correctly first. Two years ago, he posted the following picture:
I posted my guess among others:
I know - nothing much. Nothing to add, nothing to learn. But you have to admit: it was cool. That such a great figure in movie criticism history just said: "Mohsen: Yes." It was cool.
He was accessible. He was available.
In 2011, Ebert published his long-awaited autobiography, "Life Itself". After its publication, he advertised that if we bought the hard copy book online from a certain bookstore in Chicago, he would sign the book and dedicate it in his own handwriting to whomever we choose, in whatever words we choose. Obviously, I bought the book (something I rarely do, because I had already listened to the audio book), and obviously I wanted it to be dedicated to myself, with a self-appraising sentence I wrote to make me feel good.
When I received the book in the mail, I hurriedly went to the first page to see Ebert's autograph. To my surprise, a little card fell out:
"For Mohsen, Roger Ebert, 11.10.11"
What? That's it?!
But the following letter was also neatly folded inside:
But now that I look back, I guess that was selfish of me. I'm glad I have Ebert's autograph - even if it's on a little card.
For many years, I had a dream, that one day I would write a screenplay, it would become a movie, and Roger Ebert would review it on his website. It honestly didn't matter if he praised it or trashed it; because even when he trashed a movie, it was great fun (here's a good example).
Anyway, I guess I just dreamed a dream.
“It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.”
This, in my opinion, was Ebert's greatest lesson. Ever since I read it, I've used it as an artistic compass. I never get deluded into what moral or immoral message a movie might be selling. Because that's another trap most viewers or art-lovers are utterly unable to avoid.
There was once a time when people learned from the works of Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Those days are far and gone by. I grew up with the writings and characters of literary and artistic figures such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Mario Puzo, Stephen King, and Roger Ebert. I think about them, and how their creations have molded who I am.
So today, another one of those giants passed on. Today, my life changed. As opposed to the past fifteen years, from now on every time I watch a movie (which by now you know is around 3-4 times a week), I will not be checking Ebert's blog and learning from him. I hope you appreciate, that is a significant change in lifestyle.
And the troubling part is, there's nobody out there as good as he was. When it comes to learning about movies, I don't know where to go from here.