Thursday, April 4, 2013

On The Critic

I didn't always take such delight in movies. Sure I saw them and enjoyed them, but I didn't realize how much there was to see until about the year 2001. At some point around that time I stumbled across Roger Ebert's reviews at the Chicago Sun Times website. Now I'd been familiar with Ebert and his partner in criticism Gene Siskel, who had died a few years before. Who didn't know them, though? A thumb up from one of them always meant there was something to see in a movie. Not something profound or hilarious, but something worth seeing. Two thumbs up meant one thing: see it.

Anyway, it turns out that Ebert's site wasn't so much a website as a vast cupboard of reviews. One by one I gobbled them up. I wonder what he thought about The Shining. Did he review Ordinary People? And then the reviews for Woody Allen's movies, from Bananas all the way up to the present. And Kubrick. And Bergman. And. . . Inevitably I began to watch the movies again, pulling out old VHS tapes and buying these then-nascent and now-forgotten things called DVDs. After, of course, I went back to the reviews, agreeing here and disagreeing there. The disagreement went through several phrases: denial, outrage, despair, détente. It was like arguing with your professor.

Throughout the following serious movie going years Ebert was a silent companion, first, because he wrote so many reviews and second, because he spoke with personal and yet not folksy literary voice. It's easy for a reader to take voice and tone for granted, but every good style is hard-won and voice long-sought. Too in print he balanced being informative without slipping into academese. This appealed to casual readers wanting a quick review and passers-by a quick read, but of course it left scholars and fans wanting more. Never a bad thing.

Some time around 2007 or so I drifted away. In part this was due to my own departure from reading criticism and desire to develop my own thoughts, and in part I was turned off by his increasingly overblown political columns. I regret turning away. Not just because, as I learned, his reviews continued to be superb, but because I learned to appreciate ardor, candor, and old age, even when the combination rankles me. I can't consider him fanatical, though, well not with respect to anything but love for movies. Once he wrote that on a good day his favorite movie was Citizen Kane, and on a bad day, King Kong. I always smile when I think about that remark. It's. . it's just right, about him and about movies.

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