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Paul Clinton, CNN.com film critic, dead

A tribute to a friend

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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(CNN) -- As a critic, Paul Clinton was fond of using the word "perfect" in his reviews. As his editor, I was just as fond of taking it out.

In our regular phone calls, we would joke about that. "I see you took out my favorite line," he would tell me. And I'd say, well, I just wanted to get more detail in. "Perfect" could be so absolute. Nothing's perfect, right?

But there was something perfect: Paul, to his credit, was a perfect gentleman about my tinkering.

Paul Clinton, CNN.com's longtime movie critic, died Monday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. He was 53. The cause of death, according to his nephew, Joe Egan, was natural causes, though Clinton, a smoker most of his life, had struggled with respiratory ailments over the previous couple of years.

Paul wasn't the most artful writer -- or most art-obsessed movie reviewer -- as he would be the first to tell you. He loved the roller coaster rides and popcorn flicks as much as he enjoyed works that aspired to something more. (Read a sampling of Paul's reviews.)

Movies, to Paul, were entertainment, first and foremost -- though he always went hoping for art, or, at least, humanity.

Paul could accept a little manipulation -- after all, that's what movies do -- but he could not tolerate insincerity. If a movie appeared to making a blatant play for awards, or put technical virtuosity above human (and humane) values, he came down hard.

He did so with the last two "Matrix" movies ("Oh, they're great video games! Spectacular video games! Perhaps the best video games in the history of human civilization! But video games nevertheless") and the recent "Memoirs of a Geisha" ("a big, bright package with little inside").

He hoped his reviews could be a guide for moviegoers. If not, that was OK: he didn't take himself too seriously, and he hoped you didn't, either. Yes, he had the film studies courses, the student filmmaking experiences, the hours of Italian neo-realism and French New Wave -- but like most moviegoers, he was mainly a guy looking for two hours of diversion.

"I feel that as a film reviewer, I am a barometer," he wrote in his CNN.com biographical note. "After reading my opinions on CNN Interactive or from seeing Paul's Pix on television, people get an idea of what I like and don't like and then can measure that against their own opinions -- as in 'anything he likes I know I'll hate,' or 'if he liked it then maybe I will too.' "

At the heart of his personality, said Egan, were Paul's Midwestern roots.

"It's Ohio values," he said. "We're just regular people out in Hollywood."

I don't know much about Paul's upbringing beyond a few facts. He was born in Maine and moved as a child to Columbus, Ohio, where he was raised. He stayed in the city to go to college, at Ohio State. Upon graduation, he ended up in New York, where he got a job as an NBC page. He later worked for CBS and then, in the mid-1980s, started at CNN.

I first got to know him upon taking over as CNN.com's Entertainment section editor early in 2001. At the time he was supplying reviews to CNN's Web site and its radio network, along with creating regular TV pieces for a division of the Showbiz unit, "Daily News from Entertainment Weekly."

He was as worried about having a new editor as I was about having a movie reviewer to edit. Would he be high-strung? Egotistical? Thankfully, neither he nor our other reviewer, Paul Tatara, were anything but welcoming, and I loved being caught between the two's Siskel-and-Ebert-like disagreements.

Later that year, when I went to Los Angeles to meet CNN's Showbiz unit in person, Paul was a gracious host, welcoming me into his home and using my arrival as an excuse for a party. He entertained me with stories of his time -- not always happy -- as an NBC page and later a producer on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show. He was also a manic driver, showing me L.A. through the windshield of his over-accelerated, short-stopping Saab convertible.

He was a friend.

Paul, like any critic, had his biases. He couldn't abide Keanu Reeves; he loved Woody Allen. But he strove to be fair. If a new Allen film was disappointing, he said so, and if Reeves gave a good performance, he offered credit. He gave bad reviews -- any reviewer will tell you they're easy to write -- but he didn't revel in them, though a bad movie was two hours of his life that were gone forever.

Moreover, he was effusive with praise if a film hit his sweet spot, as -- this past year -- did "Munich," "Walk the Line," "King Kong," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Cinderella Man," among others.

Paul would likely say elements of those films were "perfect." I would, again, take that word out if I could. And then the two of us would laugh again, and prepare for next week's review.

Let's face it, Paul. The world isn't perfect. But I know one thing: it's a hell of a lot less perfect without you in it.

Rest in peace, buddy.

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