(I wrote this in April, 2013, when Roger Ebert died)
One of the many things I wish I could remember, but never will, is what exactly possessed me to watch Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time. It must have been some time around my junior year of high school, when I went through a serious phase with the director, starting naturally with the samurai classics and moving into the modern stuff. I was watching everything, but I don’t recall now whether it just happened to be another box on the Kurosawa shelf (God rest you, Video Station) or whether a critic had recommended it.
What I won’t forget is the astonishing experience of watching it. Even in those days before Facebook and online video games, the storytelling style of 1950’s Japanese film dramas was not quite tailored to the attention span of a suburban American teenager. It’s a story of a mid-level Tokyo bureaucrat who discovers that he has inoperable stomach cancer and only months to live. He decides, against the weight of all his experience and temperament, to try to do something useful with his remaining time by turning a drainage field into a proper park. And it is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest movie ever.
Two of its scenes changed the way I watch movies. The main character (played by Takashi Shimura) goes on a drunken spree after learning that he is terminally ill. At a dancehall of some kind, he requests a popular song of his own generation–“Life is brief; young madens, fall in love, before the crimson bloom fades from your lips; before the tides of passion cool within you, for those of you who know no tomorrow.” The reeling room comes to a standstill as the drunk old man groans out his hymn:
Later on, he is glimpsed on a swingset, in a light snowfall, singing the song again. It is the most beautiful, heartrending, gently overpowering thing I’ve ever seen in a movie. That brush with mortality and with the heroic battle for meaning and altruism in a fleeting, absurd life really did shake me up.
I thought back to that first encounter with deep existentialism–predating my first brush with Kierkegaard and maybe with Hamlet–as I read one of the many eulogies to Roger Ebert today, this one by fellow Chicago critic Keith Phipps:
One year, Roger hosted a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. His introduction was typically knowledgeable and erudite, delivered in that voice I’d heard since I started watching Sneak Previews as a kid. Then he called it one of the few movies he knew that could “make you a better person.” It’s a bold claim to make for any movie, even Ikiru. But he meant it.
Roger understood how much movies matter, how a good one can burrow into our souls, and he never let anyone forget it.
For all I know, it was Roger Ebert who persuaded me to check out Ikiru in the first place. I grew up watching “At the Movies” every Sunday night just like any other normal, decent human being, and while my concrete memories of it are pretty sparse, I think the idea that movies could be serious and challenging as well as thrilling, funny, and diverting must have come from Siskel and Ebert. The “as well as” there is deliberate. One of the things I’ve always loved about Roger Ebert is that he wasn’t a snob. He didn’t like it when movies insulted the intelligence of the audience, but he was always willing to judge a movie more or less on its own terms. A sharp horror flick could get a thumbs-up, even if it never stood a chance of rivaling Aguirre: The Wrath of God in Ebert’s pantheon.
But it’s the really good movies that make a critic (no one cares, or should care, what Samuel Johnson thought of Arden of Faversham). Partly because the critic can convince others to watch those movies, and partly–maybe more so–because the critic can convince others to see things with new eyes, to expect something more or different from the experience than a childhood of light sabers would leave one expecting. That includes the idea that a movie can, in rare cases anyway, make you a better person.
He wrote with a kind of understated grace that most of us should try to emulate. His essay “Nil by mouth” needs to be read, right now if possible. His 2011 essay on death for Salon is also a little treasure. His willingness to be very honest about his trials and yet fundamentally uncomplaining in light of the happy life he’d been able to lead was remarkable. Age, experience, and many thousands of movies (including all the very good ones, one assumes) seemed to have made him a philosopher, a rare modern exemplar of that ethical and stylistic mean which in former days was the greatest achievement to be sought. He was dubious of religion but respectful of it, earnest and idealistic in politics but not strident or self-righteous, discerning in all things yet charitable. A popular touch is taken by those unfamiliar with humanity to be a symptom of mediocrity, but Ebert’s many testimonies suggest otherwise. The kindness he showed to total geeked-out strangers (including preteen aspiring film critics) is an excellence of its own, enabled by but somewhat distinct from his abilities as a writer.
I wish very much that I had gone to that festival screening of Ikiru (today’s lesson: go see people you admire when they speak publicly, especially about something you really care about). I wish that I’d ever seen Roger Ebert in the flesh, many years as we shared this city. But at the same time I know it doesn’t much matter in the scheme of things. The words and the movies matter, to the critic and his reader anyway, much more than the momentary flash of bodily presence. “My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris,” he wrote in that 2011 essay.
He didn’t fear his own death, he wrote in quite apparent earnest, but he wanted his friends to weep at his memorial service. That is fitting. A gesture of loyalty is always welcome.
The third time I saw Ikiru, it was showing at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films (Ebert had been a graduate student down there, once upon a time). The crowd there is, or was–this is getting to be a long time ago, I realize–rather given to mockery and disdain. The emotionally intense style of Kurosawa’s actors, and the sometimes stiff subtitle translation, prompted titters and chuckles throughout the first two thirds of the movie. I was annoyed.
When the camera rested on Shimura in his swing, singing a tune of his youth in the falling snow, the laughter fell silent. The only sound you could hear, below the actor’s rumble, was weeping.