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Movies: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Posted April 5, 2013 by Philip Bagnall in Movies

The news filtered through late yesterday of the passing of a man often described as a legend. ‘Legend’ is a foully-overused adjective these days, but Roger Ebert earned that title. It’s not often that one man can be credited with legitimizing a craft. Big-headed as it may seem, journalistic criticism is a craft, and for many the defining craftsman was Roger Ebert.

For 46 years, from his first published article with the Chicago Sun-Times to his success with the late Gene Siskel on At The Movies, to his later writing, even during his battles with cancer, Ebert’s reviews were infused with a humanity that belied the image of the critic as ‘critical’. They were warm and witty, but also intelligent and considered. On At The Movies, this especially came to the fore when he and Siskel would disagree on a film. Their review of David Cronenberg’s controversial Crash is an exemplar of Ebert’s skill. He and Siskel had differing views on it, but they were able to articulate why in a concise but accessible way.

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As smart as he was, Ebert’s defining trait as a critic was that he was identifiable. From the start, he was unabashed in his reviews being relative, even personal. When he slammed a popular film he could acknowledge that a lot of people would enjoy it, and could bring himself to dissuade people from films that he appreciated, but that had thornier themes. It wasn’t populist, merely honest. Not every critic can get away with this approach, but Ebert knew what made good cinema. If a film affected him, he felt it would affect others too. It might have affected them in the opposite way to him, but that’s the power of the movies. We can see the same film, but our reactions are unique to us. It was this defining power of film that Ebert transferred to his writing. Whether you agreed with him or not (and yours truly would be the first to admit he didn’t agree with Ebert on many an occasion , his passion for film was undeniable. His combination of cinephilia with an accessible writing style made him required reading across the US and beyond. It was this combination that won Ebert the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first film critic ever to receive the award.

Besides his candour, Ebert was also funny, often brilliantly so. Constant ire at his apparently inconsistent grading of films prompted this reply:

Every month or so, I get an anguished letter from a reader wanting to know how I could possibly have been so ignorant as to award three stars to, say, Hidalgo while dismissing, say, Dogville with two stars. This disparity between my approval of kitsch and my rejection of angst reveals me, of course, as a superficial moron who will do anything to suck up to my readers.

- from Ebert’s review of Shaolin Soccer (2005)

Other times, like when a film really vexed him, he’d just unleash a tirade like this:

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Ebert wasn’t beyond laughing at himself either. He often acknowledged when he changed his opinion of films he reviewed years previously, and claimed a certain pride in his script for Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970). Plus, he hung out with Muppets.

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His books are required reading for aspiring critics. I Hated Hated Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks (named for his retort to Rob Schneider when the ‘comedian’ blasted a negative review of Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo by Ebert’s fellow critic Patrick Goldstein) are full of inspired venom and common-sense excoriation of films that simply had it coming. Meanwhile, his The Great Movies series showcase the eloquence and thoughtfulness that only masterpieces can inspire.

Ebert knew the trust he garnered in people, and he invested that confidence in fighting some noteworthy battles. He constantly vilified the wayward ratings system employed by the MPAA, and took a stand against any film he perceived has lacking any kind of moral fibre (A prime example being his no-star review of Death Wish II (1982). He was also firmly against the use of 3D technology in film, dismissing it as a distracting gimmick. That said, he was no traditionalist; he advocated the oft-lambasted 48 fps shooting rate. Whilst he lamented the decline of traditional print media, he was an active online presence, with a popular website and over 800,000 followers on his busy Twitter feed.

Sadly, Ebert could not win his battle against cancer, which first affected his thyroids in 2002. A gradual decline in his health since then, including losing the ability to speak, culminated in a recurrence of cancer and a self-enforced ‘leave of presence’ just a few days before his death. Ebert’s dedication to film means he leaves behind an immense legacy. He leaves not just decades of film writing and reviews, but also a new generation of critics who aspire to his genuine and forthright approach to watching a film.

Buy and read one of his books, rewatch some classic At The Movies or settle down with a copy of Ebert’s favourite film, Citizen Kane. Whatever way you choose to honour Roger Ebert, you’re going on a journey. Cinema is a journey into other worlds, other times, other lives. Ebert’s last published article concluded with these words,

Thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.

Thank you, Roger, for guiding so many of us on this journey. Thumbs up.

About the Author

Philip Bagnall

Earl Grey, black, lemon optional. Preferably served on a drip, and whatever you're having yourself.

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