Before the age of 16, I saw two – maybe three – films in a theater. At home, I watched movies when I could, but my choices were limited to the offerings of the available four networks. (ABC, CBS, NBC & PBS) I didn’t much care for the made-for-TV stuff that was popular (except for Columbo) so I had to content myself with the great old black and white flicks that played late at night.
If I lacked film experience, I made up for it by watching a lot of television – and much of what I liked was on PBS. I’d come home from school, make a snack, go to my dad’s room, turn on his small TV and do my homework while waiting for something good to come on. Sneak Previews was often the soundtrack that accompanied my math worksheets.
This was apparently recorded in 1982, a couple of years after my time in grade school. The clip captures my memories really well though … except I saw it on a b&w TV.
In high school I went on a few movie dates, of course, but I remember those outings now as an excuse to hold hands in the dark. That’s not to say I didn’t care about film when I was a teenager – it was the mid-80s, after all, about the same time that video stores sprouted up everywhere.
At first, I rented only horror shows – terrible dreck like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left – to watch with friends in someone’s basement rec room. Then I realized I could lay my hands on classics like Psycho and The Bride of Frankenstein and Rosemary’s Baby, in versions that were neither diced into segments to fit between commercial breaks nor sanitized into acceptably innocuous broadcast fodder. I sped through all the movies that I knew about. Eventually, I started to notice and understand that I had access to what felt like ALL THE FILMS, and I became overwhelmed. That’s when I hunted down Siskel & Ebert who, by then, were on At the Movies in syndication.
For the first time, I paid attention to what the familiar voices were actually saying. When the two critics disagreed, I usually sided with Siskel.
After my daughter was born, I spent more than a year mostly cuddled up with her in front of the TV. Two or three times a week, I’d put her in the stroller and walk downtown to return the movies I had, and rent five more. I carried a notebook filled with obscure references that had been made on At the Movies.
Within a few years my life enlarged. I had a license, a job, a new set of friends, and a preschooler. The VCR was busy playing stuff that would entertain my daughter. There was little time for grown-up movies, and no need for film critics.
It wasn’t until I started dating The Ogre that films really came back into my life. He took me to at least a movie a week. Mostly we saw whatever was popular, but he also introduced me to more challenging fare. We went to mega-plexes and art houses and drive-ins. He taught me to get there early in order to obtain the prime seats and to stay through the credits. I learned that his favorite critic was Roger Ebert, and realized I could live with that.
We married in 1991 and, thanks to him, there was soon enough time for me to start my studies of writing, the paranormal, and the horror genre. As I explored my interests, I again found myself needing guidance from all sorts of experts, including film critics. The internet made it possible for me to access all the info I wanted, but I wasn’t sure who I could trust. I turned to the familiar.
Roger Ebert: “We’re instinctively afraid of natural things (snakes, barking dogs, the dark) but have to be taught to fear walking into traffic or touching an electrical wire. Horror films that tap into our hard-wired instinctive fears probe a deeper place than movies with more sophisticated threats. A villain is only an actor, but a shark is more than a shark.” (Read the rest of Ebert’s review of The Blair Witch Project at RogerEbert.com.)
Reviews like those made me come around to the Ebert/Ogre way of thinking.
In 1995, our son came along. A shortage of both time and money forced us to become selective about what movies to watch. We started watching Siskel & Ebert together on Sunday mornings and planning our viewing based on what they said.
In 1999, we were saddened by the death of Gene Siskel. But we stuck with Roger in the subsequent incarnations of the show … all the way through Ebert Presents: At The Movies, in which Ebert contributed only a review voiced by someone else in a brief segment called “Roger’s Office”.
When he no longer appeared on television, we started following him on twitter and at his blog.
On April 2nd – just two days before he died – Roger Ebert wrote his last blog post. He closed with this: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Yes he will.
Movies matter in this household. So does Roger Ebert. I know I will continue to reference his body of work for years to come – both for the content and for the style of his writing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to think about movies from one of the greats.