In my last year of college I took a course called “Teaching Writing.” One of the articles I read contended that the reason a teacher should not spare intense critical comments on students’ papers was to build a voice in the students’ head. If they read criticism enough times, they’ll become critics themselves, and they’ll see the red ink before they ever commit their mistakes to paper. I believe it, not just because I’ve had enough of my writing eviscerated to the point where I’ve become my own biggest critic, but because I’ve had a critic’s voice lingering in the back of my head since I was 12. That voice belonged to Roger Ebert, specifically the voice he established in the hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles collected in Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion, 1996 Edition.
There are a lot of different ways for me to explain why I love the movies, but I can essentially boil it down it to a quick succession of events that happened in my sixth grade year: I went to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring in December, fell in love with it, and tuned into the Academy awards the following March. Fellowship didn’t win any major awards, which instead went to a bunch of movies I hadn’t heard of. This pissed me off. Not so much because Fellowship didn’t win, but because there were movies I hadn’t heard of, movies that everyone else in the room knew about, movies that, even when cut into 30-second clips, looked exciting and interesting in ways I didn’t know movies could be. And there were those long montages, the retrospective tributes that have long been held as evidence that the Oscars are nothing but a self-congratulatory echo chamber, that nevertheless opened my young eyes to a whole history of references that I didn’t get.
My preoccupation with catching every cultural reference was simultaneously coming to head with The Simpsons, a show that made references its stock-in-trade, not just in passing jokes, but in entire sequences and episodes. I had The Simpsons: The Complete Guide to our Favorite Family, an indispensable book summarizing each episode of the series during its golden years, seasons 1-8. Each summary somewhere contained a “Movie Moment” box that explained those jokes the adults were laughing at were references to The Godfather and Alien and A Clockwork Orange and a whole list of movies I had never seen, and just possibly heard of.
And in those days, youngsters, the internet was slow and made a terrible noise when you had to connect to it and, like today, it wasn’t a safe place for 12-year-olds. So I used what resources I had. If something on The Simpsons or The Oscars or on TCM sparked my interest, I went to the warped and weathered copy of Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion in the coffee table and looked it up. Then maybe I’d read the review right after or right before, or look into one of the titles that caught my eye when I was flipping through the pages. I’d see the star-ratings he’d give the movies, and find that movies I’d liked as a kid were actually regarded as terrible, and that some of those VHS tapes on the shelf I’d ignored for so long were considered classics. I read his defense of Hoop Dreams and Natural Born Killers, and learned that what made something good or bad wasn’t just its content, but its form and message and its intentions. I learned how to do a scene-by-scene analysis of Pulp Fiction years before my parents deemed me old enough to see it, even years before I snuck the tape off my grandpa’s shelf and watched it when no one was home. I read his “100 Scenes in 100 Years” in the back of the book and my list of must-see movies expanded, and it kept expanding as I learned of directors and actors and the many trends and movements they were a part of. And I built a vocabulary: Character development. Archetypes. Genre. Formula. Shots. Narrative. And that vocabulary became an arsenal. Now if someone challenged my tastes, I had the language and the historical knowledge to take them to court on their claims. I can’t say if I always won – I was in my early teens, and what was once a charming precociousness was quickly turning into off-putting condescension towards nearly everyone – but I was learning how to be a critic.
And not just a critic of the movies. It translated into books, comics, TV, music, politics, school, adults, my peers, myself. Some might say I went a little overboard. If you know me you know that I tend to assess reality in the terms of film criticism – political events are too heavy-handed, conversations were too reliant on exposition, this friend is a complex supporting character while this coworker remains frustratingly one-dimensional, etc. But apart from his ability to analyze and criticize and really blast the shit out of something he hated, there was a very human and often very passionate optimism that ran through everything he wrote. Read any of his many great blog posts, or his stories of Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, Russ Meyer, Malcom McLaren, and there’s no doubt that he cared deeply about people and the world at large. To get so down on North, but to still champion Hoop Dreams or Dark City demonstrates more than just a love of the movies, but a serious, intense conviction that what we say and what we produce is important and has meaning, and that if at its best a roll of film can make just a few people’s days, or lives, better, then it is no doubt worth giving a damn about. At least that’s what I’ve picked up. And on my best days, I like to think that’s what motivates me, too.
I could go on. I could get sappy. If I wasn’t careful, I could turn this into my autobiography. I could lament for a few more paragraphs that I never got to meet him, or even write him a letter, just to thank him. But I’ll keep it to this, for now. I know I’m not alone. There are countless other people just like me I’m sure, who got into film through Ebert and At The Movies and his reviews and his books. And like how I hear him in my head every time I watch a movie, I’m sure so many hear the same. So while you might be dead, Mr. Ebert, your voice hasn’t gotten any quieter.
Home Video Companion? You’re goddamned right.