Many years ago, when my family took a trip to the US, right before we were going to Disneyland, we chanced upon this library that was getting rid of books for free; hundreds of books were piled onto cheap tables and anyone was free to them. As my dad and I are bibliophiles, we couldn't pass up the chance. I remember getting a book of scary science fiction short stories, a Lovecraft novel and some fantasy tripe with no cover that was so bad it was also creatively so. The ones I chose were mostly a collection of tiny books so they could fit in my suitcase.|
One, however, was huge. It was like the size of those American phone books you see in the old movies. It has a plastic purple soft cover and Roger Ebert's face was on the front. It was a collection of his reviews up until 1998 or so. I remember my mom making a snarky remark when she saw I had picked up such a huge book. "You're going to lug that around all day?" Yup.
I had heard of Roger Ebert and had a passing knowledge of his reviews, but I had never seen the Ebert and Siskel At the Movies show, and only read his reviews when they were quoted in other articles. It was a time when my English was at a point that any English book I read took months to decipher. I guess it seemed like both a bargain and too good a chance to pass up, and I got only more and more stubborn as the day passed on. (No storage lockers allowed by my sadistic parents.) When I finally got back to the hotel, I was so relieved to chuck that thing away.
The other books were easy to carry in a pocket or fit into a backpack, so I worked on teasing out the riddle of words contained therein in long car trips. When it came time to return to Japan, I had forgotten about the Big Purple Ebert Book. No matter how hard I tried to reshuffle things around, it would not fit in my suitcase or backpack. We had to go to be on time at the airport and "for-all-that-is-good-and-holy-would-you-just-forget-about-that-book". But with the curious obstinate refusal to give up over inconsequential things that only a child could have, I decided to carry it my hands the entire way, 17-hour flight included, back to Japan. I still have no idea why I was so stubborn about it.
In any case, the book made its way into our home and collected dust in the cramped shadows in the most forgotten part of my bookshelf for 2 or 3 years. One Sunday, my reading comprehension for English being much better, I decided I would spend the day reading an English book. Obviously, this is the part where I say I remembered the book and opened it up and a world of movie literacy I had never known unfolded before me. Such was not the case.
I read a couple of reviews. I remember being completely confused by how different Ebert's opinion of some of my favorite movies. I remember leafing through to see if he had reviewed any Japanese movies. I remember searching for my favorite movies and reading his reviews of them. I found a humor in them that I had not seen before. It was this kind of dry stubbornness to let go of integrity that resulted in a light and pleasant grumpiness. (Years later, when I read his review of The Mummy Returns where he mathematically calculates just what it would involve to outrun the rising of the sun would always remain the most vivid reminder of how creative he was with this shtick.) It was slightly addictive, because, I suppose it felt like grandpa was letting you in on secrets of the world, even though he was sure it would be lost on his grandson's young mind. But that grandpa wasn't bitter or curmudgeonly, but accepting of the way of things, receptive to positive developments, resigned, but never complacent to the negative. So I always came way with the idea that there was a lot of love that was put into those reviews.
I kept reading intermittently throughout the years, more so when it became easy to understand English without putting a lot of effort into it. One reference in a review would lead me to another and another, and soon, I found myself developing a knowledge of film history without even really looking for it. I always liked movies of course - I appreciated them with all the enthusiasm one can muster from sitting in a dark cinema and being bewitched by the power they contain. But there was a difference with movies. I had been taught in school that it is important to evaluate good music, literature and visual art, and to understand the basics of creating these things. Video games and movies, it goes without saying, had no such teachings. I knew, as fundamentally as anyone who pays attention to modern education, what makes music, literature or visual art tick, but I appreciated movies and video games only as they directly spoke to my tastes and experiences in viewing or playing them.
As I grew up, I began to become uncomfortable with this for movies. With video games, I was part of a second generation who already had people who had forged out a language of criticism for them. I learned very quickly that it was the back and forth of users that brought you to a core appreciation of what works and what doesn't in game design. So as I talked with others about games, my understanding of them as works of design, well, it grew as I did. But with movies, there came to be a gap. I'm not sure what made it happen, but sooner or later I couldn't understand what people were saying when they said things like, "That acting was pure garbage." or "So-and-so is not a good actor." This extended to comments like "not well-made," which puzzled me further, because, well, while I may have agreed it wasn't a good movie, it looked well-made to me. It was so different from my perception that I thought there must be something I'm missing.
However, movies are so passively enjoyed, I never really made an active journey to discover what that was. I continued to read The Big Purple Ebert Book though. As it bothered me more and more there was a great deal of knowledge missing for me to make a more mature evaluation of movies, I read more reviews from other critics, but I remember thinking many times that the person behind the review came off as kind of an ass. So many of them wrote in a way that personally turned me off. I don't know whether you could call it elitism on the part of the critics, or reverse elitism
on the part of the readers, but a lot of people seemed to accuse movie critics of being snobs. I'm sure someone smarter and more well-versed in film circles than I has made a theory about the visual and emotional punch of movies creating a strong reaction, which then leads to an emotional rejection of other people's evaluation of it.
This never really happened with Ebert. I always felt like he kept his reviews in good humor. He never crossed a line into perceived dickishness that I found in so many other reviews. Moreover, as I continued reading through that book, I developed a sense of the stuff of movies. I started reading about titles I had no interest in, at first just because Ebert's prose was so delightful and entertaining, then because I could feel the seeds of a deeper understanding blossoming as I read more. Gradually, I began to chance onto movies that were considered Great Movies that I had never even heard of. I was introduced to all sorts of kinds of movies I had no idea existed. I didn't go to see the great majority of those movies, but that wasn't the point.
Eventually, when I read and re-read almost all of the reviews in that massive book, I had a thirst for more and chanced on Ebert's website. It became a permanent fixture in my web browsing habits. On the weekend I would come home, and sometimes get a little bored puttering around, and remember, "Oh, its past Friday in America, I bet Ebert has more reviews to read." And it was off to the website, with reviews that were consistently amusing and insightful.
I have seen maybe 5% of the movies I have read about in Ebert's columns and reviews, but I gained such a knowledge of film history, of time periods and places and situations and people, of trends and fads and styles and passing slang. And it all felt like being given candy by grandpa when he comes to visit. Unconsciously, innocuously Ebert made me aware of things like framing, movie language, cinematic tropes, acting approaches and countless other details of movie making.
I never sought out this knowledge or directly learned it, until about a year or 2 ago when I started watching stuff like Nostalgia Chick by Lindsay Ellis, Brows Held High by Oancitizen or Cinemassacre videos by James Rolfe. Though the vast majority of these people's videos had a negative tone and critical of cinema, they were so good-natured about it, that I found a similar trustworthiness to them as I did Ebert. They used direct language to introduce many film concepts that wouldn't be appropriate for Ebert to go into in his review format. But I felt taken aback whenever they would introduce something, because it seemed like I had cultivated an understanding of it from Ebert's reviews and they had simply given me the direct teaching and names of the things I came to learn intuitively from him. I not only became film literate, but critic literate. Ebert review's encouraged me not to waste my time with destructive critics, but critics, who no matter how negative they can be, are ultimately constructive. And they did so in the way that all the best writing does, not pushing and shoving in forcefully, but through the power of well-considered words, thoughts and sentences.
I feel like a part of Ebert's lasting legacy is this. Because he always held himself to a high standard whenever he wrote, and no matter how times changed, stuck to his demands for integrity, that the high quality of his criticism had such widespread effects. He could, by chance alone, enrich the thinking ability and understanding of things in a Japanese brat who picked up a thrown-away book and read it only casually over the years. Maybe I am fundamentally misunderstanding Roger Ebert, but I think he had an optimism and enthusiasm for intellectual honesty that encouraged people around the world.
To me, he is one of the great people of the 20th century and with his passing, I feel like yet another great journalist goes away, leaving us to the wolf pack who neither can see, nor appreciate the importance of stubbornly maintaining high standards and the importance of making an effort to communicate at a level anyone can understand. But it is because of people like Ebert who never gave up, that there is a younger generation who will carry on these values.