Once upon a time there was no Internet. That meant you were stuck with movie reviews printed in your local newspaper or what you could catch on that now-ancient medium of television. Local newspaper? The Hartford Courant. Hartford doesn’t inspire a lot of art. In fact, despite Mark Twain’s living there for 17 years, nearly all his writing while in Hartford was about any place besides Hartford. Television? Well, if you were home sick from school, you could catch the fro-stache combo known as Gene Shalit on The Today Show. They’d cut to him in between news segments the same way that local news cut to the weather girl. Or there was Leonard Maltin on Entertainment Tonight – a nightly program more about Hollywood’s business than its show.
Or there was Siskel & Ebert. A television show that was truly about movies. I’m never good with names and though both hosts would introduce themselves at the top of the show, they would forever be “the bald one” and “the tubby one” in my mind.
I liked the bald one.
He seemed the more brainy of the two. Confident and professorial, he would simply make pronouncements. Remarks without the need for justification. He seemed above the films he was reviewing (judging them, really) and this appealed to my teenage smugness. His reviews had that imperial sense of “art” behind them. And when he decided to trash a film, it was vicious: an intense screed against not only the makers of the film but also the powerful, soulless, business industry that produced it. That, too, appealed to my teenage self-righteousness.
It’s easier to appear hip from a position of assumed superiority.
Then there was the tubby one. This one often seemed on the defensive. Having to explain to the bald one why he liked a film that the bald one had already dismissed with a mere eye roll. Sure, the tubby one seemed nice enough. It’s just that he always wanted to grade on a curve.
He appeared to like every film he ever saw. He spoke in an easy, relaxed style – without a hint of the bald one’s academic dictums. And where was the tubby one’s outrage (and the accompanying comfort of my teenage Schadenfreude)?
But it was Roger Ebert who gave me my first taste of what a good audience should do with art:
Surrender to it.
Fully. Completely. Trust the artist in your journey. Do not impose yourself on the art. Let it impose itself on you. Allow yourself to experience it. Freely. Openly.
Only then should you consider if the art moved you. Only then can you ask whether the art was successful.
Roger Ebert knew that not every dish was filet mignon in Mastro’s Steakhouse. He knew that there were just as potent culinary delights in Sal and Carmine’s Pizzeria. So it was with film. A film was not to be judged against the pretensions of academic standards. There was no reason not to enjoy – and praise – Animal House as much as A Room with View.
Of course, Roger Ebert didn’t like everything. But when he trashed a film, he seemed to feel obligated to provide some real entertainment for his audience:
“To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.”
“[The film] should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor.”
And yet, despite these reviews, I still remember him as loving film with all his being. Maybe that’s because his pans were never personal, never petty. You suspected that Ebert was still rooting for the artist, even when the artist failed. Perhaps that’s the reason director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Alan Zweibel were always game to quote Ebert’s famous review of their film, North:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
It says something – quite a bit, actually – when a critic can pan, yet still be feted by the panees.
Nevertheless, Roger Ebert was more inclined by basic nature to promote and celebrate. And my teenage arrogance confused this with being soft and undiscerning. Little by little, however, his enthusiastic clip reviews exposed me to film – especially the documentaries and indies that were never going to make it to my no-theater town. It was a bit like learning literature by reading The New York Times Book Review and in that pre-Internet, pre-on-demand dark age, there wasn’t much alternative. It mattered little if Roger’s and my tastes didn’t run similar – as was often the case – his endless optimism and enthusiasm opened me up just the same. His mature passion trumped my youthful pretense. And it turned out, of course, that Roger Ebert knew plenty about the academics of movies. He just didn’t see a need to put them before the art form.
And so it was the tubby one – not the bald one – who taught me how to love film.
Today we have the Internet. It’s easy to find hundreds of reviews of any particular movie. And still, Roger Ebert, who was both an early investor in Google and a master of the Tweet, remained one of the world’s most visible film critics. It’s a testament to the man that his website was often unreachable and his review database unsearchable in the hours after his death. The servers simply couldn’t keep up with the world-wide demand. Roger, I think, would have appreciated this outpouring – a world full people who loved film as much as he. And, if one missed Roger Ebert’s joy of film in each and every review (that I now understand could only be linked to a discerning mind), it was impossible to miss when he wrote:
“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world.”
Thank you, Roger, for always contributing your joy. I get it now.
Originally published April 5, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.