Thursday, April 4, 2013

How Roger Ebert Taught Me to Love Movies

Posted By on Thu, Apr 4, 2013 at 6:16 PM

Roger Ebert
My father passed away last year, a few years older than Roger Ebert but of the same generation: just after The Greatest, just before the Baby Boom. A few years ago, he wrote to me after reading a couple of my reviews and said something like, "You're sounding even more like Ebert these days. Or maybe he's starting to sound like you." It was the former, of course. I've copied Roger Ebert consciously and unconsciously for years. Ten years into writing reviews on a regular basis, and I still catch myself doing it: phrasing something (or trying to) with a voice of avuncular authority, that matter-of-fact wryness, that earnest appreciation even of movies that just do their job and get it done with reasonable efficiency.

I'm not sure if Ebert was the first film critic I ever read. I remember flipping to Pauline Kael's pans of The Little Mermaid and Back to the Future Part II (which contained a backdoor pan of Who Framed Roger Rabbit!) when I was nine; maybe she was actually the first. I got her books out of the public library, along with various old editions of Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion. I checked them out again and again; first I'd look up my favorite movies, to see if I could find his reviews of Spaceballs or, yes, Roger Rabbit. Later, I read reviews of movies I wanted to see, or movies I'd never heard of at all. I thought I was doing this as a way of insinuating my growing movie habit into my growing reading habit. What I was actually doing was learning how to watch movies, and how to be a film critic.

Kael taught me this too, and so did many other critics, fine and not, that I read in the years before I wrote my first movie reviews and in the many years since. But Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday at the unacceptable age of 70, loomed largest. He almost couldn't help but doing so: who could produce more reviews for me to read? Leonard Maltin, I learned, had a whole team of blurb-writers and editors to fill his all-movie guides—the lazy git. Ebert wrote every goddamned review in those Movie Home Companion volumes (later rechristened his Movie Yearbook). He had a voice: approachable, plainspoken but poetic, and wise in his way. He also used the first person, an invaluable lesson in the difference between the honest "I" and the unnecessary "in my opinion." He knew a hell of a lot about movies, but he didn't indulge in endless bloviating about cinema history where a well-placed antecedent or comparison would do. And he had—this is crucial—a genuine love of movies. He wanted to like them, even (especially!) when he hated them. His writing radiated love, with the seriousness of a real job.

He was also on television, which became a bone of contention among cineastes; his shows with Gene Siskel (and other critics after Siskel's own untimely passing) dumbed down criticism with its consumer-guide thumbs-up/thumbs down binary. But as a devoted viewer, I can tell you that Siskel and Ebert weren't just giving yay or nay verdicts on movies. If they did that, they could've covered 10 or 20 per episode, maybe more, instead of the usual five or six. No, they were analyzing and arguing—and teaching, again, about how to deliver thoughts on movies engagingly, concisely, clearly.

But as famous as the TV show made him, it's his writing that will endure. Not all of his reviews are poetry; some could read a little perfunctory. This is inevitable, I think, when you write at Ebert's astounding pace: hundreds of reviews per year, an entire staff of critics unto himself. After he was first hospitalized for cancer treatments and all manners of complications, he returned with a vengeance, writing more than ever, in print and online, about movies, plus politics and religion and his life. Just a few days ago, he announced a very Ebert-like semi-retirement that entailed, essentially, doing the work of a normal full-time film critic. I was very much looking forward to it, as I would look forward to every Friday morning when a new batch of his reviews would appear online.

Roger Ebert Home Movie Companion
While some critics are best known for their ability to eviscerate what they dislike (and Ebert certainly has some entertaining pains; I refer you to the North-inspired title I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie for plenty of examples), Ebert was often at his best when writing about a movie he loved unequivocally. I've always found this surprisingly, deceptively difficult: not to love a movie but to explain why, to gush over it in a literate way. Picking things apart, dividing up the plusses and minuses—those are relatively easy tasks. To explain what makes a movie great is much trickier. Yet I got the sense that these reviews came easily to Ebert (again, I refer you to a book: either of his Great Movies volumes, collecting retrospective essays on canonical works). Consider this passage from his review of Minority Report from 2002, extolling his favorite shot in the film:

There is poignancy in [Samantha Morton's] helplessness, and Spielberg shows it in a virtuoso two-shot, as she hangs over Anderton's shoulder while their eyes search desperately in opposite directions. This shot has genuine mystery. It has to do with the composition and lighting and timing and breathing, and like the entire movie it furthers the cold, frightening hostility of the world Anderton finds himself in. The cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg before, is able to get an effect that's powerful and yet bafflingly simple.

Ebert didn't always go into the technical details of composition and technique in his reviews, but when he did, he always made them simple enough to understand. He didn't write for film studies scholars; he wrote reviews that, in some cases, a 10-year-old boy could understand. This was distinct from simplicity (he never talked down to his readership; he rarely talked down to the movies themselves), and absolutely crucial for me, as I'm sure it was for so many others: that voice, talking about all kinds of film. That voice also said, secretly: you can do this, too. Not be as perceptive or eloquent, perhaps, but maybe you can share something you love (or hate, or kind of like) with a bunch of strangers. Maybe, if you work hard and also be by all accounts a person of generous and high spirits, you can even make it look easy.

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