Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dim the Lights 2: Dim Harder

So now that we’ve established in what ways I have been lacking, there’s still a bit more reflection to get out of the way before we get on with the movie absorbing. What exactly do I hope to gain by watching all these movies? What is the definition of a true film aficionado, anyway?

I propose that a true film aficionado possesses an unconditional love of film.


Note that I’m not advocating an unconditional love of all films, plural. I’m not for a moment  suggesting you have to endure the latest Martin Lawrence or Sandra Bullock vehicle with a nod, a smile, and a prompt proffering of your rear for another spanking to prove you got the moxie to hang with the likes of Ebert. No, a love of film is not an invitation to masochism (and when it is, you probably know what you’re getting into), but it does require you to seek out films outside the cozy confines of your claustrophobic comfort zone/coffin and squeeze enjoyment/enlightenment even from those films you do not particularly like upon  first viewing.

A true love of film should inculcate a desire deep within the aspiring aficionado to be challenged, to be awed, to engage. If a vetted, initially unappealing film underwhelms you, it’s your duty to navigate between the twin pitfalls of (a) discounting your own discernment and assuming the anointed ones are right; and (b) dismissing the commonly accepted critical opinion outright because those durn critics just want to look like they’s a-book-learn’d. The true aficionado seeks the middle way, (c): feeling secure enough in his own tastes to see what works for him and what doesn’t, but, crucially, attempting to understand why a film is regarded so highly even though the aficionado himself might take some exception. This takes practice. After all, biases and insecurities tend be pretty good at hiding themselves and do not yield easily.

Only with open eyes, an unquenchable thirst, and and an unflappable curiosity can you synthesize the critical thinking processes and tastes of your betters. These necessary faculties, however, do not come naturally, but must be cultivated, nurtured, and even toughened up a bit to grow.  Yes, you watch District 9 and The Prestige and Iron Man, but when a ‘50s musical dances on through, or a bit of Bolshevik propaganda swings a hammer in your general direction, you make it a point to put on your shiniest tap shoes and a thinkin’ cap in the shape of a big, fat nail head. The more you see, from as many different places and times and genres you can find, the thirstier you become, because if there’s one thing all of us has learned from late-stage postindustrial capitalism, too much is never enough. You get thirstier the more you absorb, and the more you absorb, the more discerning you become. So even films which fail to resonate at first still deepen your respect for the art form, the magic percolating on the screen with that luminous, crazy sorcery every time the lights dim. Through this lens, you work on sharpening your own eyes with no need for Ben Lyons’ perfumed blindfold or the misshapen microscope of an Armond White.


Which is not to say the path cannot benefit from a guide, one who has trod where the novice dares. Dante had Virgil to lead him through the afterlife; Superman had Pa Kent to teach him how to be human;  Rocky had… The Penguin. But why did I choose Ebert? Well, he does happen to be the most famous movie critic of all time. You may have heard of At the Movies. The whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing? His idea. And conveniently enough, he’s already drawn us up a map, reproducing every single one of the Great Movies columns featured on his website.

Convenience aside, however, having read his blog for quite a while, I can attest that he invests an unmistakable amount of integrity into every review he publishes. Rather than strive for the misguided and impossible goal of objectivity, Ebert is unafraid to admit the intimate struggles and joys of his own life inform his opinions, resulting in admiration for films that veer far, far away from the consensus of his peers. One need only read his review of Awake to see how an extended hospital stay can augment the viewing of an otherwise mediocre movie.

This is the most important criterion to consider: honesty. We’re not sifting through these gems for cultural cachet  but to better our understanding of what makes these glorious things called movies come to life. I want my guide to show me the right way, not the safe way. He’ll challenge me and turn all my petty assumptions on their petty lil heads. The guy is still pumping out both a column and a blog on a constant basis after losing his voice to thyroid cancer. If Ebert can’t teach my sorry ass diligence, perseverance, and digging into a movie’s sternum with my bare hands to extract its still-beating heart for examination week after week after week, no one can. So while I’m weak now (see: Tokyo Story), with Ebert’s guidance, I will rightfully become the film aficionado I once claimed to be.


Twice a week, I’ll watch a film from Ebert’s Great Movies list, read his column afterwards, take a day or two to process what I’ve watched, and then write my own reflections, gunning for a post every Tuesday and Friday. If that goes well, I’ll be finishing up Great Movies I a year from now. I won’t, however, be sticking some sort of rigid gimmick on the process, like going through the list alphabetically, as I’d originally intended. I need to sustain my enthusiasm over the long haul, and while I also need discipline, this should be a joyous romp, not a grim march. We’ll see what habits and patterns develop naturally along the way.

This blog will be a confessional of sorts, a reckoning with my own ignorance in the hope that it will lead me to richer moviegoing experiences than my current level of expertise would allow. Old-school Biblical wrath being what it is, the purging of guilt always works better when there’s an audience. So while I’m more than prepared to trudge on in a vacuum, let me know you’re out there in the comments so we can puzzle these great films out together. Just so you know, it’s not all Ozu and Herzog. There’s Chaplin and Woody Allen and Spielberg, and, yes, even George Lucas.


So come on up. The balcony is open.

First entry: Casablanca (1942)


  1. I'm glad to hear you're not going through them alphabetically. In my mind, that's guaranteed to help turn this project into a chore.

    Also, I like that you're rewatching ones that you may have seen before. I saw Groundhog Day as a kid, but now I think I should really see it again as an adult through the lens of Ebert's Great Movies list.

  2. Apparently, Groundhog Day is a big hit with all the Buddhists. Figures.

  3. You make some excellent points here, Adam. When we say, "I love movies," what we really mean is, "I love the movies I love," which is totally reasonable but not as inclusive as we'd probably like to think we're being. Although, I do also love some bad movies... Wait. Does that negate my point? Man, this thinking about stuff could get tricky. Good luck!


You talking to me?