I don’t read movie reviews before I see a movie; I read them afterwards. I don’t like running into spoilers and I dislike the idea of not making up my own mind about a movie. Once I’ve seen the movie, I’ve formed an opinion, which remains relatively impervious to the critiques of others. But still, just as I like to discuss a book with its other readers, reading what someone else thought about a movie I’ve seen remains an activity I often look forward to. But not with too many folks. (Like I said, I have strong opinions about movies.) Over the last dozen years or so, Andrew O’Hehir and Roger Ebert were among the movie critics I read on anything more than a sporadic basis; I used to read Matt Stoller Seitz back when he wrote for the New York Press but lost him along the way. (I’m not counting film theory here, of which I read a great deal a long time ago, and then gave up, frustrated by its inability to resonate with my movie-watching experience.)
Roger Ebert was not, I think, considered a high-brow movie critic by most. He did not, for instance, regularly invoke French new wave cinema, the hallmark of the critic who aspires to high-brow-ness. (The additional hyphen is necessary to distinguish that attitude from high-brownness, which is a ranking that many Anglophone middle-class Indians aspire to.) But he still managed to write wisely, and most importantly, like a fan of the movies. He did not write from a distance, from the lofty perspective of someone interested more in auteurs and the grammar of the cinema, but rather as someone you could imagine lining up for tickets at the local multiplex and arthouse alike, infected by impatient passion and the lust for fantasy and good storytelling that is the hallmark of the movie-lover. (In my graduate school days, a roommate of mine once complained about a movie I wanted to rent that its kind were ‘too narrative’; I cannot imagine Ebert using this as a critical cudgel on any movie.) He wrote about movies with feeling, and was never shy about letting his readers know about the movies that emotionally resonated with him.
I sometimes found him too kind on movies I disliked, and over the years had started to develop an instinct for when we would disagree. I would find myself muttering under my breath, ‘I bet Ebert has given this three stars’ even as I clicked on the review link. But I put it down to him being older and kinder than me. I’m not being patronizing when I say this; I still cannot describe the basis for these disagreements other than to say that I was more impatient than he was. Conversely, I did not dislike one movie that he absolutely, positively loathed: The Village. I remain mystified by why he hated it as much as he did. I could understand two stars, but one?
A critic is a writer, and Ebert had many good lines, some of them infused with rich wisdom. There is one that I am still fond of quoting to my students when they come to me for advice on writing papers: The muse only visits while you work. This one is for the ages; it’s true and it’s simple. Thanks.