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Roger Ebert and the art of grading

January 30, 2014

I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but I miss him.

From about 2003 until his death last April, I faithfully read his reviews of every movie I saw, plus many more.

Why was I so interested in Roger’s opinions? He was smart and funny, but there was more to it than that.

Last month I belatedly recognized another aspect of Roger’s appeal while reading The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj advise against grading students’ essays right away. Instead, they counsel, “First sit back and read through each paper receptively, letting it communicate whatever it is trying to say.”

This is how Roger treated movies: as works to be experienced first and critiqued second. In his memoir, Life Itself, he says that he learned this from Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

To be this open-minded is admirable. To stay this open-minded after having literally viewed thousands of films would be almost miraculous.

Roger became the Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967. Here he is in 2007, reviewing Alvin and the Chipmunks:

The most astonishing sight in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not three singing chipmunks. No, it’s a surprise saved for the closing titles, where we see the covers of all the Alvin & company albums and CDs. I lost track after 10. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would want to listen to one whole album of those squeaky little voices, let alone 10.

Sure, the chipmunks are an easy target. But my point is that Roger stayed through the closing credits, still curious about what might come next and still capable of being surprised.

His review continues:

…Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, who accidentally brings them home in a basket of muffins, discovers they can talk and is soon shouting “Alvin!” at the top of his lungs, as Chipmunk lore requires that he must.

David Cross plays Ian, the hustling tour promoter who signs them up and takes them on the road, where they burn out and he suggests they start syncing with dubbed voices. Now we’re getting into Alice in Wonderland territory, because of course they are dubbed voices in the first place. Indeed the metaphysics of dubbing dubbed chipmunks who exist in the real world as animated representations of real chipmunks is … how did this sentence begin?

That said, whatever it was, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is about as good as a movie with these characters can probably be, and I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this movie. I am even sure some readers will throw it up to me like I liked the “Garfield” movie better. Yes, but Garfield didn’t sing, and he was dubbed by Bill Murray. My duty as a reporter is to inform you that the chipmunks are sorta cute, that Jason Lee and David Cross manfully play roles that require them, as actors, to relate with empty space that would later be filled with CGI, and that at some level, the movie may even be doing something satirical about rock stars and the hype machine.

Does he sound annoyed that he had to sit through this two-star kids’ flick? Not really. He came, he saw, and he noticed some things that amused him and some things that he could grudgingly admire. It’s a privilege to get paid to watch and judge movies, good and bad, and Roger enjoyed it until the very end.

Getting paid to read and evaluate student writing is also a privilege of sorts. If decades pass and I become an old man and I’m still doing it, I hope to be doing it with the patience and good humor of Roger Ebert.

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