Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Film versus critic

"Of course, a critic resembles a poet to a hair, except he has no anguish in his heart, no music on his lips."

-Søren Kierkegaard

"Hey, I'll have you know Roger Ebert liked this film."

"I'll have you know the only thing Roger Ebert likes is big pans of lasagna."

"Lots of them."

-Joel, Crow & Tom Servo, Mystery Science Theater 3000

My family will vouch for my extremely snobbish attitude towards motion pictures. I've been strongly opinionated about film ever since I was thirteen and read the reviews for the movie the Rocketeer. Critics of the time considered it a middling film, so I was convinced I'd hate it. Even though I did wind up liking the film a lot, I didn't stop being a snob - my snobbishness only grew with time. I became the lone holdout when my family would go to see a movie - it had to be something I was willing to watch or I wouldn't condone it. And, of course, my opinion on what constituted a good film had a lot to do with what the critics were saying.

We had a few books about movies in our family library, including some editions of Leonard Maltin's books. As I became more interested in film, I started spending more and more time with our 1990 edition of Roger Ebert's guide. It hadn't interested me initially because he covered only a certain number of films spread across about 20 years. However, his long-form film essays were definitely to my liking - he didn't simply judge whether a film was worth watching, he spent some time defending his position. Although to my family it seemed as though I was becoming harder to please with films, I was actually becoming more and more in love with the movies (you may recall I watched 900 movies in 2012).

During my paper route each morning, I would carefully check the entertainment sections of the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald to see what news there might be about the film business - and, better still, if there was a film review to read. Oh, how I wished our papers had been running Roger Ebert's column! Still, before long I discovered the television version of Siskel & Ebert was available on our modest satellite service, so I began watching the series every week.

Seeing Ebert defend his positions in person on a host of films I'd probably never see was interesting; sometimes I would revisit his reviews after seeing a film for myself and decide I didn't agree with him at all; sometimes on the show, I found myself in Siskel's camp; other times, I thought both men were way off-base. Regardless, because I trusted Ebert's opinions in some respects, I was more willing to trust his recommendations than any other person. An essay in the back of his book about the Third Man convinced me to give that movie a chance; it's been my favourite film ever since (later, a favourite book). I watched the movies Hoop Dreams and Dark City largely because of Siskel & Ebert's reviews - even though it took me a decade to see those films, the glowing reviews were lodged in my brain. Heck, even now I'm chasing down stray Akira Kurosawa films, having first heard of Kurosawa in Ebert's book.

As I've mentioned before, perhaps the most startling moment for me while watching Siskel & Ebert was when Siskel dourly gave a film thumb's down and suggested an alternative, older movie in its stead. Fiery with anger, Ebert demanded to know why they even bothered with their program if they were just going to recommend old films. Why not stay home and watch Citizen Kane all year round? It made an impact on me, the consideration that watching movies was not a quest to find "the perfect film," that movies could contain something of value to the viewer even if it was, on the whole, forgettable.

I was watching the television program as Siskel's health worsened and was impressed as he continued to deliver reviews from his hospital bed. The week of his passing, I was amazed by the episode Ebert produced to mark the occasion; they had an odd friendship - "best enemies," as Ebert put it. None of the succeeding co-hosts ever impressed me by their chemistry with Ebert, but I still followed the series semi-regularly.

Eventually I parted ways with Ebert; for people who dislike Ebert (or any critic), it might take just one review the fan strongly disagrees with. For myself, it was more a sense that Ebert didn't understand much outside of film, having spent so many decades studying it to the expense of all else. Specifically, when Ebert would write reviews about films based on comic books, video games, television programs or other popular entertainment, he would expose his ignorance and disdain for the material, which steadily soured my interest in his work.

Ebert's blog ultimately brought me back into the fold as I found his personal thoughts even more interesting to me than his film reviews (although I'd begun checking his reviews about once a month). I didn't think much when Ebert announced on the blog he'd be decreasing his presence as a reviewer; two days later, he was dead.

The tools Ebert gave me to evaluate and appreciate movies are what I'll always retain; my interests in film are constantly shifting and changing, which I'm glad of. I've learned to understand why critics love Citizen Kane, yet decide for myself that I don't think Lincoln was all that hot. As I continue to dig through Ebert's invaluable archive of film reviews I know I'll find some where I disagree with him on every syllable. But, through it all, I enjoy how bad films would fire up his creativity, leading to some of his most memorable missives. I leave you with a collection of some funny and/or insightful quotes:

"I bent over backwards to be fair to the first movie about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was, I wrote, "probably the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie." Now we have the sequel, subtitled "The Secret of the Ooze." I may not get what I want, but I get what I deserve."

- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

"Keanu Reeves is often low-key in his roles, but in this movie, his piano has no keys at all."

- The Day the Earth Stood Still

"To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material."

- The Spirit

"Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in."

- Kick-Ass

"Whether he is a competent swashbuckler is hard to say, because the fight sequences here are composed in the editing and do not seem to exist in an actual space-time continuum."

- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

"The irritating thing about special effects is that anything can happen, and often you can't tell what the hell it is."

- Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time

"“The killing of the women and children must stop!” they agree. Having arrived at this conclusion after 12 years of rape and pillage, they do not qualify as quick studies."

- Season of the Witch

"Cain's sidekicks include a violent, foul-mouthed young boy (Gabriel Damon), who looks to be about 12 years old but kills people without remorse, swears like Eddie Murphy, and eventually takes over the drug business. I hesitate to suggest the vicious little tyke has been shoehorned into this R-rated movie so that the kiddies will have someone to identify with when they see it on video, but stranger things have happened."

- Robocop 2

"Children holding a Transformer toy in their hand can invest it with wonder and magic, imagining it doing brave deeds and remaining always their friend. I knew a little girl once who lost her blue toy truck at the movies, and cried as if her heart would break. Such a child might regard "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" with fear and dismay."

- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

"The movie's dialogue knows it's funny--a fatal error."

- The Other Sister

""Kirsty!" we hear. And "Tiffany!" And "Kirsty!!!" and "Tiffany!!!" And "Kirstiyyyyyyy!!!!!" And "Tiffanyyyyyyy!!!!!" I'm afraid this is another one of those movies that violates the First Rule of Repetition of Names, which states that when the same names are repeated in a movie more than four times a minute for more than three minutes in a row, the audience breaks out into sarcastic laughter, and some of the ruder members are likely to start shouting "Kirsty!" and "Tiffany!" at the screen."

- Hellbound: Hellraiser II

"I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine."

- The Human Centipede

"Is it worth my money?"

"It sure is, Little Jimmy. Says here -- worth your money, IF you get it two for one."

- The Howling

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