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Taking the Roger Ebert “Movie Love Questionnaire”

November 27, 2013

Over on the new Roger Ebert website, they have what they call a “Movie Love” questionnaire that they give to writers for the site. After reading one of them (thanks to my friend Ali Arkan linking it), I decided to try and do the questionnaire for myself, and I have to say, it’s a lot tougher than it may look.

1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

Basically, I grew up in two places; Somerset, New Jersey, where I lived from when I was five years old to when I was about 13, and Walnut Creek, California (we moved there because my father got a job in San Francisco), where I lived till I was 18, after which I went off to college in Washington state (though, of course, I did come home for vacations and summer, except for the summer after my junior year, when I stayed in Washington). Each place had its own charm – in New Jersey, we had the biggest backyard, since we lived on the corner, so we played a lot of baseball and football games there, and we got to go to New York City a lot, which I loved, while California had the nicer weather, and the high school where I went was just a couple of blocks from where I lived. That said, going to California after New Jersey was a culture shock in a lot of ways, not least of which was because I didn’t want to move at all. I had a very bad experience in 8th grade for a lot of reasons, but that was one of them. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school, when I made a number of older friends, that I started to enjoy myself out there.

2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

I say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating; my father is the reason why I became a movie fan. When I was growing up, I was more into sports. I did occasionally go to movies in New Jersey, and my parents took me to animated Disney movies, but that was it. But when we moved to California, my father bought a video disc player – the movie equivalent of a record player – and would bring home a movie almost every night. Now, my father had very particular taste – he didn’t like many movies made after 1960, with some exceptions (Woody Allen films, The In-LawsBreaking Away), he didn’t like violence in movies, and he definitely didn’t like profanity in movies – but within those restrictions, I got exposed to a lot of great movies growing up. He introduced me to Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Frank Capra, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Fred Astaire and other musicals, romantic comedies, and more. While I have gone my own way as far as movies go – of course I watch a lot of modern movies, I no longer have much taste for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals he loved (though other musicals I still love), and I had to discover film noir, gangster films, and Westerns on my own – I still am a big fan of much of what he introduced me to, and its probably thanks to him (as well as the fact we didn’t have a color TV until we moved to California) that I willingly viewed black-and-white movies at a time when people my age, and teens in general at any time, were stereotyped as not liking black-and-white. Also, my father taught me how to look at a movie critically, and also would highlight particular scenes.

One I remember is from Twelve O’Clock High – an odd movie for him to recommend, as his dislike of movie violence usually kept him away from combat movies – specifically the scene of the morning when Gregory Peck assumes command of an army bombardier unit. Peck’s character is a general, but he starts out sitting in the front seat of the car, the driver stops the car for a little bit, the two of them get out of the car and walk a few feet, and Peck lights the cigarette of the driver and, in a friendly manner, calls the driver by his first name. But after a few moments, Peck throws away his cigarette and says, “All right, sergeant,” to which the driver says, “Yes sir,” and when they head back to the vehicle, the driver holds the back door open, and Peck gets in. It’s a subtle way of showing how someone assumes command, and my father was smart to pick up on it and point it out to us.

3. What’s the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

I honestly am not sure. As I said before, I got taken to a lot of Disney movies when I was a kid (and am somewhat resistant to them today for that reason), so I think The Rescuers is the first one I remember seeing, when I was nine. The first movie I went to see in the theater that made an impression on me, however, was The Muppet Movie, simply because I was a fan of the TV show.

4. What’s the first movie that made you think, “Hey, some people made this. It didn’t just exist. There’s a human personality behind it.”

Probably Annie Hall, because I had practically memorized his stand-up album by that point, and I recognized some lines from his routines in the movie. Also, the way he told the movie, even though he later said more of it was exaggerated than people first believed, you could tell this was coming from somewhere deep inside him.

5. What’s the first movie you ever walked out of?

I Am Sam, which really offended me. Technically, you could say the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, but that doesn’t really count because I snuck into that partway through.

6. What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?

Some Like it Hot. Still my favorite comedy of all time.

7. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever seen?

Leaving Las Vegas. That movie just took me apart when I saw it. When I heard someone in the audience trash it afterwards, it’s the first time I really wanted to inflict pain on someone just because I disagreed with them.

8. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?

My standard answers to that used to be the original Night of the Living Dead (even though I’m generally not a fan of zombie movies) and Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. I would also add Audition to that list now.

9. What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?

Casablanca, the one and only.

10. What’s the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

In general, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, simply because of how they were able to combine the silly with the sophisticated, and in a way I hadn’t seen done before. As far as U.S. television (or drama) goes, Homicide: Life on the Street, before network interference almost completely damaged it, was the first show where I could say about a particular episode (“The Night of the Dead Living”, “Three Men and Adena”), “That was as good, if not better, than most movies I’ve seen.”

11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?

For fiction, William Goldman’s Marathon Man (the first novel with references I got), C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. For non-fiction, Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and Richard Corliss’ Talking Pictures, which looks at Hollywood screenwriters from the 30’s to the early 70’s.

12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Quadrophenia, by The Who, is not my favorite album of all time (that would be Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but it is my desert island album. It is about just about everything I’ve ever felt in my life (even though my background was completely different from the protagonist of this story), and more than any other recording artist I’ve listened to, The Who know how to capture emotions like that, which is why they mean to me more than any other group or singer.

13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

Requiem for a Dream, which I think is brilliant, but which is so haunting and disturbing. And Audition, which is disturbing for a different reason.

14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?

I watch Miracle on 34th Street every Thanksgiving and It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas (the originals, natch), partly as a family tradition, partly because I love both movies, so they would probably be the answer.

15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

My parents were pretty over-protective in this regard, and didn’t let me go to one until I turned 17, so I think the first R-rated movie I saw was Apocalypse Now, which we watched in English class because we were reading Heart of Darkness. I thought it was brilliant until Brando showed up, though the Redux version gives him context.

16. What’s the most visually beautiful film you’ve ever seen?

The Tree of Life; though that’s not the only reason I like it, that’s the main source of its power.

17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Past: Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, James Stewart. Present: George Clooney, Al Pacino.

18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Past: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck. Present: Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain.

19. Who’s your favorite modern filmmaker?

There’s a lot of them I liked, but I’d probably have to go with Paul Thomas Anderson.

20. Who’s your least favorite modern filmmaker?

That’s easy; Michael Bay.

21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

This is from a while back, but the Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin Bad Company (as opposed to the 70’s Western with Jeff Bridges, or the action/comedy from 2002 with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins) got pretty tepid reviews when it came out in 1995, and I think it’s great, nasty, trashy fun.

22. What film do you hate that most people love?

I’m not really comfortable with that question, because it’s usually an invitation for people to say, “Oh, look how I’m slamming this movie everyone loves just so I can look cool!” That said, except for Amour, I’m not a fan of Michael Haneke, and I know The White Ribbon was considered especially good and thoughtful; I wish I had seen that movie.

23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget – not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

I’ve had quite a few memorable moviegoing experiences – seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 70 mm (in a theater in Toronto that was the equivalent of the Ziegfeld, except with better facilities), seeing midnight showings of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and the last two Harry Potter movies, with appreciative audiences, and seeing Almost Famous for the first time, at the Toronto Film Festival after waiting nearly five hours to get a ticket – but I’m going to go with seeing the first two Godfather movies in my “Literature and Film” class the summer before my senior year in college. We got to see them projected on a big screen, and even though they weren’t as cleaned up as they have been since, this was the first time I had seen these (Part II is of course my favorite movie of all time, and the first one is my 3rd favorite movie of all time), and they just blew me away.

Of course, I’ve had other experiences that were memorable for all the wrong reasons – the projector breaking down after the frog sequence in Magnolia, so it took nearly an hour to watch the last 5-10 minutes, and the power going out briefly near the end of The 6th Day, and the people in the projection booth chatting nonchalantly, not realizing (a) we could hear them, and (b) we could hear them instead of the movie itself.

24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

All of the commercials. I can put up with the trailers, but not the commercials.

25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

The fact there weren’t any (or at least not that many) commercials.

26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

At the first video store I worked at, there was one guy I started off liking, but we got into some pretty intense arguments about movies, and that did sort of damage things. I had my own issues at the time, though.

27. What movies have you dreamed about?

I honestly don’t remember my dreams, so I don’t know.

28. What concession stand item can you not live without?

I can live without any of them.

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