Sunday, July 1, 2007

Film criticism loses a timeless legend

The greats of the well-known movie critics are not simply the ones who know how to deliver thoughts and opinions in the garments of colorful analogies or biting hyperbole, but the ones who bring their life experience into their work, those that recognize themselves as nothing more than overzealous moviegoers, and those who maintain that they do it all for a love of the art over the size of a paycheck. Joel Siegel, who was all of the above rolled into one, was one of a handful of those guys who inspired my own venture into this professional realm, a man who embraced cinema with a sense of charisma and refused to get caught up in an ego-driven notion that he was a defining participant in a movement of insightful film analysis. He was slamming and praising all the latest releases long before most of us knew how to form coherent sentences, but he never held that over the heads of all the incoming new-bloods.

Siegel died on Friday morning at age 63, just eight days shy of his birthday, and nearly 10 years after doctors diagnosed him with a serious form of colon cancer. The initial detection came within weeks of the discovery that he was going to be a father for the first time, a notion that may have driven his spirit enough to warrant the energy to fight the disease with all his might. He once said that “The best side-effect of fighting a life-threatening disease is learning how to live,” and if his case is anything to learn from, we recognize just how important and reaffirming it is for us as human beings to confront grave challenges when they are staring us so coldly in the face. Fear and ignorance can only go so far.

His was an illness that waged its harsh and difficult war in a series of endlessly destructive battles over the course of a decade; when treatments sent the disease into remission, new areas of his body would surrender to it. Prognosis was bleak right from the beginning, a fact that no doubt encouraged the writing of “Lessons for Dylan,” a memoir meant for his son that was to exist in the event that he never got to know his talented father while growing up. Even then, the impending tragedy of his situation never deterred him from the ability to be a constant source of light in the life of a growing child. Likewise, most men in Siegel’s situation likely would have never gotten the amount of time that he did in spending with Dylan and his loved-ones.

The fighting of his cancer at times felt like it was a surprise twist in a movie about the life of a dedicated spokesperson. His second wife Jane died of brain cancer years before, and in 1991 he co-founded Gilda’s Club, a non-profit that provided various support for patients of cancer and their families. Co-founded with Gene Wilder, the husband of Gilda Radner of whom the foundation is named after, the organization was perhaps the critic’s proudest moment, anchoring him as a humanitarian, and it served as a platform for his moving speech on the Senate floor in the Spring of 2005, when he spoke to congress on the importance of being tested for not just colon cancer, but all types.

As a professional, the man’s ability to cleverly brush and side-swipe the works of countless filmmakers never failed him. Two years after the diagnosis, he didn’t even bat an eyelash when he remarked that the ending of “Magnolia” made it one of the year’s worst films, and the fairly recent revulsion he implored in deciphering the appeal of Matthew McConaughey and the countless mindless romantic comedies he is associated with was the work of someone brazen until the end. Words often escape some of us over the fact that he felt no regret in making the statements he did about Kevin Smith following a screening of “Clerks II,” the first movie he walked out of in over 30 years. “Movies might be better if more people did what I did,” he professed.

If anyone is to learn a single thing from the man that spent 25 years as the headlining critic of “Good Morning America,” it is that his talent was not simply about dissecting and critiquing the latest releases of the movie theater. Siegel’s ultimate accomplishment in this world was that he was a brave and caring human being, living his life without fear of the unknown, and confronting great challenges head-on without allowing them spill over into the public persona that so many of us had come to recognize. But thereto, we could not help but admire more than just the movie critic; his energy was bright and positive, often infectious, and the attitude he exhumed as a professional, a friend, a colleague and a family man was that of a man too unique and special to be classified. He was a hero, and his loss leaves behind a void in this world that will never be replaced.

Rest well, Mr. Siegel.

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