April 19th will be the one-year anniversary of the publication of Rule of Thumb: Roger Ebert at the Movies, by Todd Rendleman.
Rendleman, who works with me at Seattle Pacific University, met me for coffee and we talked for a long time about his correspondence with Roger Ebert, about the development of the book, and about how Ebert himself came to write the foreword for it.
That interview is now available at Response, the magazine published by Seattle Pacific University, quite unexpectedly serving as an “In Memoriam” to America’s most beloved film critic.
In order to focus the interview more fully on Roger Ebert himself, Response editors abbreviated the interview somewhat.
The “deleted scenes” from that interview, which are more focused on Rendleman’s life and teaching, are included here for those who read the interview and want to know more…
“Deleted Scenes” from the Response Interview with Todd Rendleman
Response: Rule of Thumb has drawn high praise from some of the most accomplished film critics around, including Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. Are you pleased by the critical response to the book?
Rendleman: When Jameson and Murphy expressed interest in wanting to read the book prior to publication, I was thrilled and honored. I’ve admired them for many years, and started reading them when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois. I first encountered Jameson and Murphy in Film Comment because he had just started editing the magazine when I started college.
I would love to go to the Undergrad Library at the U of I and ransack those copies of Film Comment. That was an important part of my life.
Response: What did your parents think of your passion for the movies?
Rendleman: My parents were very encouraging, taking me to the movies.
My mother taught fourth grade in the community I grew up in. She imparted to me a love of words and language. She wasn’t as much of a moviegoer. She would drive me to the movies and she would go shopping. That was our thing.
Friday nights, my dad would take me to the movies and he would go with me. That was our thing. It was always after whatever sporting practice ended. He would come and put The Southern Illinoisan in front of me and say, “You choose.” (They gave me a lot of discretion, in that sense!)My family was a big sports family. I grew up always going to St. Louis for sports. The St. Louis Cardinals were a huge part of my life. But I loved movies as much as my dad and my brother loved baseball. And my dad made a point that he would take me to the movies once a week.
Response: What’s your approach to teaching about movies?
Rendleman (continuing his answer from the published interview): In my course “The Art of Film,” which is your classic introduction to principles of filmmaking and various movie genres, we’ll often start with North by Northwest, classical Hollywood cinema, and introduce the students to a terrific Hitchcock film.
I teach them about the importance of mise-en-scene, often introducing them to that through George Cukor’s film from 1941, A Woman’s Face. Joan Crawford plays a thief, a grifter, who as a little girl was disfigured on one side of her face. As an adult, she’s chosen a life of crime. There’s a surgeon she meets in the film, played by Melvyn Douglas. He’s mesmerized by her, and he wants to operate on her face to try to improve its structure, because she’s always keeping half of it hid with veils and hats and lace. But he wants to reform her character as well. It’s a love story and a thriller and a melodrama, all at the same time.
It’s a real crackerjack of a movie that a lot of people haven’t seen. It’s one of Crawford’s best films. It was at the end of her run at MGM. It was a brave film for her to make because, of course, she was known for her beauty and she didn’t get any support in wanting to do that role. Louis B. Mayer argued that people don’t want to see Joan Crawford disfigured when they go to the movies. But of course, the movie’s a gorgeous work of art. That’s a movie that really teaches well.
Incidentally, my first encounter with Todd Rendleman took place back in 2003, before I was working at Seattle Pacific University. I was, at the time, the lead film critic for Christianity Today, and I was invited to participate in a conversation with Rendleman and with Michael Medved. If you’re interested, that interview — which focused on film, faith, and interpretation — is still available here.