The death of Roger Ebert last week, while sad to be sure, gave me an opportunity to reflect on one of the great pleasures in my life: the movies. Reading through articles, tributes, twitter shout-outs, and obituaries, one thing was very clear; Ebert loved movies, and he helped others find the joy in them as well, through smart and well-written reviews and, more famously, through his thumbs-up/thumbs-down system that he popularized with the late Gene Siskel.
This was an intriguingly simple system, basically giving movies a yes or a no as to whether or not you should see them or not. The problem being that, at least for this avid movie fan, I enjoy most films that I see, and I feel that it was the same with Ebert. Tons of mediocre films got thumbs up, just for not being terrible. What this system was missing was, of course, the thumbs sideways.
I have seen, at best guess, over a thousand movies in my lifetime, and there are probably twenty or thirty that I truly hated; bad movies that were made poorly and really deserved the thumbs down, if only to warn other people against wasting their time. I’m sure there are plenty of other terrible movies out there that I haven’t seen as well, but do try to avoid films that appear to be of questionable quality.
On the other hand, there are probably fifty to a hundred films that I just loved; buy the DVD as soon as it comes out, see it multiple times in the theaters, tell everyone you know to see it, amazingly good. These truly deserve a thumbs up, to set them apart from the massive herd of movies that are churned out one after the other. There ought to be a way to distinguish these films.
And then we come to the other eight or nine hundred films I have seen. On Friday my wife and I went out and saw “Admission,” starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. And you know what? It was pretty good. I mean not amazing, but I liked all of the actors and the characters they played. I had a few genuine out-loud laughs, and I walked out of the theater glad that I had seen it. But I am not going to buy the DVD, or ever watch it again. Like, it was good, but not that good. But in a choice between thumbs up or thumbs down, I have to give it a thumbs up, obviously. Maybe because I am just, in general, a positive and giving person, but I almost always side on giving the benefit of the doubt.
What “Admission,” and so many other movies like it, deserves is a thumbs sideways. Not amazing, not bad, just a solid movie. Good effort guys. You entertained me for almost two hours. I will not be thinking deeply about your film in the weeks and years to come, like I did with “Inception.” I will not watch it 45 times, like I did with “The Princess Bride.” I will not rush out and buy the DVD the day it comes out, like I did with “Up.” And I will not force all of my friends and family members to sit down and watch it, like I did with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” No, I will just be glad that I saw it the one time, and then move on.
Even though I love movies, I do solidly place most of them in the purgatory of the thumbs sideways, with only the cream of the crop rising to the top and the stinkers sinking to the bottom. But that’s part of the fun of the movies as well. When you do find that one film that really speaks to you, it’s like the end of a treasure hunt that can really change your life. That’s the power of great art, whether it is movies, music, or an amazing painting. So even though most things in life are a thumbs sideways, it makes it all worth it when you discover that one thumbs up.