Learning To Think Critically.

April 5, 2013 at 1:11 am (Uncategorized)

It was early spring, 1993, I think. I’d roadtripped from St. Louis to my recent college haunts of Columbia, MO on a Friday to see Superchunk play a show at the Blue Note and had wisely–given the intake of beer at the show and then at the after-party that followed–decided to sleep it off on my old roommate Dan’s couch (which I was assured was the most comfortable couch imaginable).

I woke up, bleary-eyed and hung-over around 9 am the next morning, a Saturday. While 9 am now seems impossibly late in the day to be waking, at that moment in life it was just as impossibly early. I knew well no one else was going to be awake for hours, at least…and I had no idea where my car keys were to start back home. Rather than make a nuisance of myself and wake up the friends who were nice enough to give me a place to crash, I instead got up and had some water and settled back on the couch. I’d noticed a dog-eared copy of Roger Ebert’s Movie Guide for 1991 or 1992 on a cluttered coffee table, and I’m guessing it was Dan’s. Lacking anything better to read, I’d thumb through that.

At this stage in my life, all I knew of Roger Ebert was what I saw on television. He hated movies that teenaged me in high school liked, like Conan The Barbarian or Police Academy. If I thought of Ebert, I thought of him as a cranky movie snob, an overweaning, condescending and judgmental grouch who hated, well, everything.

The first review I paged to in that movie guide was one I was sure Ebert would savage:  Animal House.  I was fairly stunned to see him give it four stars and proclaim loudly its comic glories.  I had no idea.  I loved Animal House, but fully expected it to be the kind of low-brow humor that Roger Ebert hated, and hated very much. That he loved the movie– and loved it for exactly the same reasons I did–was a revelation.

I spent a few hours that morning reading reviews and realizing I had pegged Roger Ebert all wrong from the get-go.  Everyone has a favorite Roger Ebert review, but I think the one that turned me into a raving fan that day was for the film The Reanimator.

No, that’s not a typo.

If you’re familiar with that film, a blood-spattered, sexploitation gorefest very loosely based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, you know that it is, to coin a phrase, a bit over the top.  I’d convinced my girlfriend at the time to come see it with me (oops) at the theater when it was in release, based on the idea that it was Lovecraft, and Lovecraft was cool and scary.  She wanted to leave, I think, halfway through. I sort of did too, but I was transfixed by the absurd trainwreck happening on-screen.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  Each scene feels like an attempt to out-crazy the next, culminating with an extended sequence (and I’m not making this up) in which a bloody, headless reanimated body holds the decapitated-but-alive head of a mad scientist over the extremely naked, dead body of a woman while said disembodied head performs oral congress upon the nude body in rather graphic (for 1989), close-up fashion.

I expected Roger to absolutely hate The Reanimator. It was a sexist, violent, gory, overcooked ode to excess.  And yet here in this movie guide, Ebert’s giving this crazy movie I expected him to hate three out of four stars.  Crazier still, he’s actually praising the film for its excesses.  To paraphrase the tone of the review, Roger admired the crazy genius of the director for being willing to totally go for it. In Ebert’s mind, if you’re going to make a gore-fest that suggests such absurdities as this film did, better to go for it completely and stomp on the accelerator and leave the half-measures for fainter hearts. While he knew the movie was utter garbage, he found it enjoyable garbage, precisely because the filmmakers held to the courage of their convictions to excess and went all out.

When I got home that weekend, I headed out to the bookstore (remember those) and picked up the newest version of Ebert’s Movie Companion.  I loved the reviews.  Surprising to me, I also loved the essays. I remember in particular an essay he’d written in the wake of Ted Turner committing heresy at the time by colorizing black and white movies. The essay was an ode to black and white films that explained why they were great in such detail and with such convincing and well-designed arguments that I was utterly sold.  To this day I have an abiding love of black and white films of the classic days of cinema.

What I really learned, though, through that reading was two things.  The first was easy to grasp:  Roger Ebert was a tremendous writer, and put sentences together in ways that other critics and essayists could mostly only dream of.  The second was a little more philosophical and took time for me to sort out.  What I discovered was that I had completely mis-judged Ebert.  He was no movie snob.  He was no condescending grouch.  Rather, he was the perfect moviegoing Everyman.  Roger saw hundreds of movies a year–perhaps thousands in some years. What came through in 99% of his written reviews was that when the lights went down and the curtain lifted no matter what movie Ebert was seeing, whether it be The Godfather or Infra-Man, Roger wanted to like that movie very much.

I think that’s the key to Ebert’s legacy, and why he was such a great critic, and why he is so mourned today.  You can count on the fingers of one hand (okay, perhaps two) the number of films in his career that Ebert went to see that he hated before seeing a single frame. Think about that for a moment.  Frame it with music criticism if you like.  If someone handed you a Nickleback CD and told you to review it, you’d be cringing at the expected awfulness you were about to hear.  Roger Ebert did the movie equivalent of having to listen to a lot of Nickleback in his career.  What’s impressive is that he found so many such films–movies that might be overlooked for lack of impact–to the praises of.  Remember a movie called Joe Vs. The Volcano? Likely you don’t (if you do, it’s because of Tom Hanks).  Roger Ebert gave it four stars and insisted through all time that it was one of the greatest films of 1990. To be certain, Ebert recognized genius in film in all the right places; what set him apart was recognizing it in places that everyone else had overlooked.  That’s why you get a Roger Ebert commentary track on Citizen Kane…but also on Alex Proyas’s dystopian sci-fi noir film Dark City.

I tried to learn that from Roger Ebert.  His movie reviews re-jiggered my own critical thought process on something I love as much as he loved movies–music. I learned that obscure doesn’t mean “great” any more than “popular” means “dreck”. I learned to see art as it happens (box of snickers to you if you know the reference of “Art as it happens”, btw. Seriously, impress me.)  In this growth, Roger Ebert planted a seed and nurtured me well through the years with his movie reviews, but he was hardly alone.

At the same time in my life I began working at Euclid Records down in the Central West End in St. Louis.  Again, I expected to find snobbishness as the rule of the day (only this time regarding music). Kudos then to a guy like Steve Scariano who’d play something like the Time-Life “Greatest Rock Hits Of 1969” collection on CD in-store without the slightest hint of irony. Kudos to Joe Schwab and Tom Boyle and Guy Burwell for playing Oasis and Radiohead and Blur and Soundgarden in the store and cracking my meat hard if I tried to diss any of them for being “too popular”, whatever the hell that meant. Thanks to that tutelage, I learned that great rock and roll records are great rock and roll records, whether they sell 10 copies or 10 million. I learned that ignoring something for being popular was a good way to exclude myself from hearing and appreciating great music.

The appreciation of the mainstream and popular as having the possibility of sitting on equal artistic ground as the obscure is a lesson I still try to carry forward.  David Byron (who in addition to being the smartest person I know) is, in some lives, a collegiate art historian who simply knows more about art than I’ll ever know about anything. When I come back from an afternoon at the National Gallery here in DC, he doesn’t tell me I’m a philistine with infantile taste for asking about some of the paintings I ply him about.  Rather, he enthusiastically tells me why paintings that I’ve predisposed to believe are simplistic and pedestrian (mostly due to the fact that they caught my horribly untrained eye and interested me) are anything but, and explains why those paintings drew my eyes and caused me to remark upon them.  Are there more obscure, interesting, and worthwhile paintings in the gallery than the ones I might be asking about?  Of course…but again, I learn from David how the popular (and perhaps even mundane) can, with the proper perspective rise far above being mere crowd-pleasers.

I’ve come to think of this celebration of finding nuggets of great beauty and art and worthwhileness in the most unlikely areas of extremely popular art as “The Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” Postulation.  I swear by it and try to uphold it as the backbone of every bit of critical thinking I engage in as an adult.  No one critic in any medium I know of embraced that more fully than Roger Ebert.  That he is gone now is sad, but that he lived and wrote and wrote so much and so well is a happy thing indeed.

Thank you, Roger Ebert.  Thank you for teaching me to love black and white movies.  Thank you for writing things that made me want to see movies like Days Of Heaven and Cries And Whispers. Thank you for making the case that Joe Vs. The Volcano and Dark City were every bit as worthwhile as those other two films.  Thank you for teaching me about fruit carts and the proper way to enjoy a popcorn movie. Thank you for teaching me to think and draw conclusions…and then be willing to scrub those conclusions off the board at some later date in life and arrive at new conclusions from the same material.

I shall, in my own tiny way, attempt to pay those lessons forward with everything I write. Rest in peace.


  1. stumania said,

    Thanks for for the excellent tribute to Roger Ebert, Chris.

  2. Chris said,

    Hey, thanks for the kind words Stu. Much appreciated.

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