05 April 2013

Thank You

Many people have a story about Roger Ebert. This one is mine.

I was an adolescent when Beavis and Butthead were in their prime. It was a show my parents were borderline about letting me watch - they didn't approve, exactly, but I had reached an age where they couldn't police me all the time, and if others were watching it at a family gathering, they wouldn't force me to leave the room. The music video interludes I didn't much care for, but the regular stories filled me with insane glee: in my favorites, the comedy simmered, building to a climax of hilarious slapstick violence.

It felt exciting and daring, more so because Beavis and Butthead were the subjects of many "Think of the children!" comments and editorials in the news. The adults I actually knew, meanwhile, didn't consider the show a moral failing, but they certainly held it in disdain, even when they were laughing at it. (My uncles were a notable exception.) "This is so stupid," my mother probably said. "You just don't get it," I probably said back. The characters were stupid, sure, but the show itself couldn't be stupid, because I liked it, and I wasn't stupid. Right?

My brain was not equipped for more complex arguments.

When Beavis and Butthead Do America came out, I opened the newspaper - we were a Detroit News family, back when that seemed to mean something but I wasn't sure what - and expected to see a takedown of the film from the regular reviewer, Susan Stark. In my eyes, she was another adult who disdainfully dismissed things I liked, because she didn't get it, either (or so I thought at the time). But when I found the review on the third page of the Entertainment section, I saw that the film had received three out of four "roses" (the News' version of stars). "Huh? Susan Stark wrote this?" I thought before glancing at the byline. Nope. It was Roger Ebert.

That guy? Of Siskel & Ebert? But they had just savaged Independence Day last summer, inarguably the greatest movie ever released. He gets it?

I read the review, in which Ebert defended Beavis and Butthead. He called them satire. His website is still down as I write this, so I can't access the full review, but some light Googling provides an excerpt:
...it is widely but wrongly believed that Beavis and Butt-Head celebrates its characters, and applauds their sublime lack of values, taste and intelligence. I've never thought so. I believe Mike Judge would rather die than share a taxi ride to the airport with his characters--that for him, B&B function like Dilbert's co-workers in the Scott Adams universe. They are a target for his anger against the rising tide of stupidity.
Is that why they make me laugh so hard? I thought it was because they injure themselves and do dumb things. Does my enjoyment go even deeper than I know? And if it doesn't, can I pretend it does? And now that I think about it, Independence Day wasn't as good the second time I saw it, and it was even worse the third.

The words felt true, even though I had never seen them applied to the likes of Beavis and Butthead. In my memory, I can still feel the physical sensation of my brain adding wrinkles, and to this day, I consider it a formative experience important to my (ongoing, always ongoing) development as a human being.

The years went by, I devoted more of my life to film, and I came to understand the value in differing opinions, even Susan Stark's (especially when she wrote a two-roses review of Titanic that served as a bastion of sanity in a world turned nutty). I turned more frequently to Ebert as a cultural father figure, a mentor who opened doors and modes of thought. As with most mentors and father figures, I had a "falling out" with Ebert later on, a period when I felt I had grown beyond him. (The arc of Will Leitch's "My Roger Ebert Story" felt very familiar when I read it.) He was handing out four-star reviews like Halloween candy, yet negative toward films I saw value in. (Our divergent opinions on Johnny To's Exiled was a that-does-it moment).

But I hadn't grown beyond him, of course. I had merely gone in a different direction, one I never would have found in the first place if he hadn't pointed the way.

I am forever grateful.

1 comment:

  1. ID4 was always shit. But MARS ATTACKS!...that was the bomb, yo.