Roger Ebert.

It was such a tremendous weekend for PATANG at Ebertfest - we sold out all 1600 seats and Prashant killed the Q&A. I got to meet so many great filmmakers, including Alrick Brown (director of Kinyarwanda), Raymond Lambert (writer / producer of Phunny Business), Jacob Wysocki (star of the film Terri) and Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, director and star of my pick for best film of the year, Take Shelter.

But the most important person I talked with all weekend was none other than Roger Ebert, and speaking to him was coming full circle. There’s a story behind it.

Every year the University of Colorado at Boulder hosts what is called the Conference on World Affairs. One of the highlights of the conference is that every year Roger Ebert would host a 3-day viewing of a film which he considered to be exemplary. He would analyze the films shot-by-shot, and the audience was open to call “STOP!” and ask Roger a question about the film. It was a grueling but highly entertaining event, and Roger was game for any question, and never once shied away from a response. Of course once cancer robbed Roger of his voice, he was no longer able to continue the tradition.

Cut to 1997 when I was in undergrad at Colorado, studying molecular biology and anthropology with the intent of going to medical school and becoming a pediatric oncologist. Every year I had had found time to attend Roger’s symposium, and he had dissected Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction and Fargo. In my senior year I had become an officer in the Progam Council for my university, and that year I was in charge of handling Roger’s choice to dissect, which was Alex Proyas’ brilliant sci-fi epic Dark City. I worked on the logistics of the event and even worked security one day. I also got the rare opportunity to hang out with Roger after the screening, and we shared a 30-minute conversation that would change my life.

Ebert’s poetic commentary from ‘Dark City’

In Dark City, as in the clip above, Roger had pointed out a sequence which he felt demonstrated the exquisite craft and skill of the filmmaking involved. On the surface it was a simple shot - a knife falls from a table to the floor - but Roger pointed out that that simple move, which most filmmakers would do in one shot, was actually a composite of four different shots. It was a detail that mesmerized me, and really spoke to the true meaning of craft. After the screening I had some time to speak to Roger - who was and remains incredibly accessible to all - and told him that that sequence reminded me of woodworkers carving the tiniest details into their work, what on the surface would be seen as embellishments and non-functional, but when seen in the bigger picture add up to the overall impact of the piece. We started talking about craft and the films of Satyajit Ray, Kryzstof Kieslowski and the Coens. Roger was impressed with my film knowledge, and asked if I was a film student. I told him I was a molecular biology student, but that film was an important part of my identity. Roger then looked at me and patted my hand. “I can sense you have a passion for this that runs deep - you should strongly consider being a filmmaker.”

I never saw or heard from Roger again after that, which was to be expected. He’s a very busy man, and I had a life to build. But after a stint of being a geneticist and getting my MBA, when it came time to face myself in the mirror, Roger’s words always came out to the forefront. In my life, he was the very first person who believed in my abilities as a storyteller. Even before my family, my friends, or my wife. He had no other incentive to tell me that other than because he loves cinema and he loves filmmakers with all of his heart, and he gave me that endorsement.

Cut to fifteen years later and there I was, in the beautiful Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois, representing a film I was a part of and showing people the trailer for Lilith with beaming pride. And sitting at the back of the theater in a leather chair was Roger, taking it all in. Prashant and I went up to him and he gave us his blessings, and we thanked him for being such a huge supporter of Patang.

I touched his feet (a tradition in India when you wish to pay respect to your elders) and put my hand on his shoulder, and told him “you probably don’t remember me, but I was the molecular biologist from Boulder whom you told should become a filmmaker. Roger I wanted you to know that I listened to your heartfelt advice and here I am, doing what I love most, and I have you to thank for it.”

Roger put up a finger and motioned me to wait for a second. As he is unable to speak he wrote on a small pad and lifted it up to me.

"I remember you," he wrote, "and I’m so very proud of you."

Roger and Me.

"The Social Network" and the return to American cinema.

This week the trailer for David Fincher’s upcoming film The Social Network was released across the web and in theaters. It’s become better known as “The Facebook Movie” and is about the company’s enigmatic founder, Mark Zuckerberg. For those who haven’t seen it, here it is, and please watch it before reading this post any further:

What a magnificent trailer, the perfect blend of aspiration and curiosity, and that amazing, haunting cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” I do think trailers can be works of art in their own right, but that’s a later post.

The Social Network has to be my most anticipated mainstream film of 2010, even more than Inception or Scott Pilgrim. It’s not just because it is directed by David Fincher or written by the incalculably prodigious Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), but more because I feel the film can bring us back to the core of American cinema, which is a humanist cinema.

I had mentioned in an earlier post that I felt the 70s was the greatest era of American film, but I never really spent much time explaining why I felt that way. I was born in 1975 so I can’t say I’m nostalgic for the films of the 70s, as I really didn’t start watching them until I was in my late teens and early twenties. My awareness of cinema really started in the early 90s, when I had a bike and a car and a way to pay for movie tickets and rentals. Other than that, I pretty much watched anything my parents wanted to watch, which was mostly Bollywood films.

But I guess it all started with a crime of academia. In my 10th grade advanced English class, we were assigned to read Ordinary People by Judith Guest, and as I mentioned awhile ago on this blog, I have a really hard time finishing books. A week passed and we were coming up on exam time, and I hadn’t even made it past ten pages of the book. So I did what any sensible kid would do, I went out and rented the movie, which came out in 1980 and was directed by Robert Redford. It was a magnificent piece of filmmaking, and an amazing story to boot.

I guess I should dedicate my getting an ‘A’ in the class to Mr. Redford and screenwriter Alvin Sargent for doing such an amazing job of adapting the novel, and for making me eventually read the book. I didn’t fare so well with Tess of the d’Urbervilles and quickly learned my lesson that the book is generally always better than the film. Thank god I didn’t have to do a report on Pearl Harbor with Michael Bay as my co-pilot.

But I digress. I started reading up on Ordinary People, which led me to see Raging Bull because Scorcese had lost the Oscar to Redford. And then it snowballed from there, as I watched Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and All the President’s Men among many, many others. The films that were playing in the theaters at the time had nothing on these films, which were rich, dense, and expertly written tales about real people.

And that was the key. The American films of the 70s, irrespective if they were set in the thick backwaters of Vietnam or on the unforgiving sidewalks of New York City, were first and foremost about people and the human condition. I was taken to the next level of humanist filmmaking by watching the film Faces by John Cassavetes, which put me right smack in the minds of people and the struggles they faced. It was like watching a Godard film under an intense microscope, where the battleground was waged on the pores of a woman’s skin and the roots of a man’s scalp. It’s grotesqueness only served to highlight its reality.

In the mid 90s we had a slight revival of American humanist film with the movies of the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo in particular), Richard Linkater, Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino, who all turned their cameras on the peculiarities of people and the crazy things we do to each other. But since then, America has veered away from the human condition and amplified spectacle over species. Some might argue that the heart of American cinema has been trampled under the foot of our desire to make films louder, faster and shinier.

Europe, of course, has been making these kind of humanist films for decades, crowned recently by the masterworks of the Dardenne Brothers, in particular Le Fils (The Son) which I think is one of the ten finest films of the last century. But one can see the influence of Cassavetes on the Dardennes.

But I see a film like The Social Network and I’m given that glimmer of hope of a film that is about people and the twisted things they do. Aaron Sorkin is one of the few contemporary writers who knows how to balance human desires with obscenely grand situations, and he is a master of contemporary wit. And while a film about Facebook might seem like an odd fit for David Fincher, when we review his canon of films we can see it is just about the perfect film for him to handle. In Zodiac the film wasn’t really about the Zodiac killer, it was about what his actions did to an entire population. Fight Club wasn’t really about Tyler Durden, it was about the state of American masculinity. And in The Social Network I don’t see a film about Facebook, but rather a dissection of human greed and the collateral damage that comes with the relentless pursuit of success. Truth be told, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen an American film that dealt with what it simply mean to be a normal, functioning human being. Likely The Hurt Locker. And the amazing Brick.

But we need this kind of reflective cinema, simple for the fact of the times we live in. The films of the 70s were made by Americans who were coming off the Korean and Vietnam wars, who were in an embattled economy and oil crisis, who lived in a state of fear and paranoia in regards to the Cold War. The films that they made were a response to those forces, authentic voices of anger, confusion and hurt. We live in a time right now where we’re dealing with two catastrophic wars, a global financial meltdown, an addiction to oil, and the slim prospects of gainful employment that will recoup the cost of a higher education. There couldn’t be a more valid time to express discontent and the pains of the human heart than the age we currently live in.

It’s an adage that I took to heart when I was putting Lilith together. Sure, it’s a movie about a girl going to hell, and that can be treated a grand spectacle. But I’m far more interested in portraying the thoughts, fears and battles of the girl than I am interested in showing hell. Her struggle is the primary focus, and I hope in her story we face a lot of our own fears and conflicts. In my most humble way, I wanted to attempt a humanist horror film. As the edit comes together and I see what we’ve committed to image, I think we’re on our way in accomplishing that goal. It’s by no means perfect, but it grabs at my heart before it does my eyeballs, and that has always, always been my original intent.

I just hope nobody uses Lilith as a reference for their book report on Dante’s Inferno, because then that kid’ll be totally screwed.