Perennial Ebertfest attendee has written book on the critic

CHAMPAIGN — Todd Rendleman grew up in the small town of Anna in southern Illinois, loving movies. As a kid, he would check out only one movie at a time at a video store. He'd watch it on a Friday night and then watch it carefully again the next day.

He thought it sacrilegious that his friends would check out a stack of videos and view one after the other without discussing each movie.

To whom could such a serious movie lover turn?

Well, Roger Ebert.

The famed movie critic based in Chicago became Rendleman's virtual friend and consolation. He was first "introduced" to the critic via his TV movie-review show, "Sneak Previews," in 1975. Then, 10 years later, his parents gave Rendleman a copy of Ebert's first movie yearbook, a compilation of his criticism.

Now Rendleman, 41 and a film studies professor at Seattle Pacific University, has written his own first book — part memoir but mainly an analysis of Ebert's criticism over the past  4-1/2 decades.

"I wanted to write the book because I wanted people to understand why Ebert is the most trusted and influential film critic in the country," he said.

"Rule of Thumb: Ebert at the Movies," released last week by Continuum International Publishing Group in New York, contains photographs of Ebert as well as movie stills, plus a foreword by Ebert.

Rendleman, though, is not exactly a total fan boy in his 200-page book. He does not whitewash Ebert, Seattle film critic Richard T. Jameson notes in one of the first reviews of the new book.

Rendleman, though, does stand up for Ebert. He writes that the attack on Ebert for "dumbing down" film criticism is not accurate.

"(The critics) point to his use of the thumb up and down as simplistic," Rendleman said. "What I point out is Ebert has always compared his use of the thumb to the same way that we speak of movies on the street with our friends. The thing that Ebert's critics glide over is he's always written voluminously about movies. At the same time, the TV programs displayed a more abbreviated version of those analyses."

In his book, which is aimed at a general and not academic audience, Rendleman looks at various aspects of Ebert's criticism, including his values. For those, he explored Ebert's history and background.

The first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Ebert grew up in Urbana and graduated from the University of Illinois, as did Rendleman, who obtained all three of his degrees at the UI.

The professor tries to understand Ebert's values by studying his reactions to the style and content of 1980s Adrian Lyne movies such as "Flashdance," "Foxes," "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Fatal Attraction."

He cites Ebert's law: "A movie isn't just what it's about. It's about how it is what it's about."

Rendleman also studies how Ebert reacts to movies adapted from literature and popular novels "because he's a reader, and I think it matters that he started graduate school in English literature at the University of Chicago," Rendleman said.

Another chapter explores Ebert's attitudes toward sex in movies. Rendleman thought that was important because Ebert wrote the screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and collaborated with director Russ Meyer, who was known for his sexually charged films.

"Ebert believes graphic detail is not erotic. What's erotic is character, situation and suggestion," Rendleman said.

Rendleman also devotes a chapter to Ebert's "misfires" — reviews in which the professor feels the critic misses the boat. For that, he closely analyzes Ebert's reviews of several movies, among them "Terms of Endearment," "Extremities," "In Dreams" and "Apocalypse Now."

Rendleman also compares Ebert's reviews to those by Pauline Kael and John Simon.

"Their approaches were so different as writers I thought it was meaningful to compare them," he said. "Kael was always looking for a good time in movies. Simon always wanted movies to be art. Ebert has always just sort of taken films on a piecemeal basis: He wants them to be the best of whatever they're striving to be."

Rendleman was in town the past week to attend Ebert's 14th annual film festival, a special event of the UI College of Media. He attended the first Ebertfest in 1999, embedding himself in the event right after depositing his Ph.D. dissertation on religious images in film. His new book includes a chapter on Ebert's attitudes toward religious images in movies.

Rendleman moved to Seattle in 1999 but has missed only one Ebertfest since. At the UI, he obtained all three of his degrees in speech communication; he also took English Professor Ramona Curry's course on how to teach introductory film courses.

"Her knowledge of film history and commitment to excellence as a teacher have inspired me in my craft," said Rendleman, a full professor in film studies at Seattle Pacific, a small, private school of 3,300 students.

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