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Ebert


Roger Ebert was, for myself and countless other young cinephiles and casual film fans around the world, a gateway drug. As a child I was always vaguely aware of the Siskel & Ebert “Two Thumbs Up” rating, having seen it on the front of every VHS cover and blurbed about during every movie commercial. I even distinctly remember the less-prestigious “Thumbs Up!” that a film would receive if the two split the rating and the movie’s producers were grasping at critical straws. As a teenager I became even more aware. I vividly remember making note of when “Ebert & Roeper At the Movies” was on every Saturday in what seemed to be a constantly shifting time slot in Kansas City. My Saturday nights usually ended up at the drive-in, and I needed to know which movies to see, right? Other film review shows came and went – does anyone remember that abysmal Leonard Maltin “Hot or Not” nonsense? – but it seemed like “At the Movies” was always there. Of course neither critic was infallible, but as a reasonably solid guidepost it has yet to be improved upon in television.

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In my formative years, Roger Ebert’s website became an invaluable resource on learning about the major rest stops towards cinephilia. The Great Movies, in particular, really gave me direction. A dynamic series of Roger Ebert’s favorite films it became more useful than any number of AFI Top 100 lists, and it pointed me in the direction of cinema’s great films and filmmakers. Imagine me, a 16-year old Midwestern girl who had never seen a foreign film in her life, reading through the list on a rainy afternoon and coming across Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, or The Bicycle Thief. I suppose I’d heard of these films at various points in my life, and certainly at the time knew that I was vaguely aware of them. But what Ebert provided that the other lists and things I’d seen up to that point did not was context. He gave reasons why I should see these movies. He loved these movies, and that came through in his writing. As the years went on, I eagerly awaited the next entry in the Great Movies series. I was always a little excited when I stumbled upon one I’d never heard of, or watched one that I truly disagreed with, for who wants to agree all the time? No amount of Roger’s reasoning can ever convince me that Yankee Doodle Dandy or Yellow Submarine is a “Great Movie”, but the disagreements are part of the game. In the last decade, the series had become quite a bit more sporadic, but I still followed and read every single entry until the last, on Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama. Poignantly, the film is about a village that “enforces a tradition of carrying those who have reached the age of 70 up the side of mountain and abandoning them there to die of exposure”. With this final entry Roger Ebert, himself 70, had found the perfect film to end the series on.

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Ebert was never an expert on the technical aspects of filmmaking like a David Bordwell, but he never claimed to be. Nor was he an expert on any particular country or genre like Donald Richie. Instead, Ebert was a writer first and foremost. His criticism won him a Pulitzer Prize not for the strength of his analysis but for the wonderfully personal style of his writing. He reviewed films completely without pretense. He made no attempts to hide his political or moral leanings in his reviews, and perhaps that’s why his criticism seems so much more personal – and infinitely more readable – to myself than some of the more technically-minded critics in the world. Perhaps that’s why I am personally taking his passing so hard; I never met Roger Ebert, but I felt like I knew him through his writing.

Roger Ebert loved to champion films he felt were worthy of a larger audience. In his first year as a film critic, he saw a movie called Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, the first feature by a young Martin Scorsese, and wrote a glowing review. Scorsese and Ebert had sort of parallel careers, and the film critic reviewed every film that the director made, eventually writing enough on him to compile into a book. Ebert was also the only critic to review Mike Leigh’s first feature, Bleak Moments, declaring it a masterpiece. He was one of the only critics to heap praise on Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch at the time of their release, and both have since become classics, though in keeping with the personal nature of this piece I feel I should say neither is a particular favorite of mine. Other filmmakers owe much to Ebert, undoubtedly the world’s most well-known film critic. Perhaps no director owes as much to him as Werner Herzog, who Roger loudly and repeatedly proclaimed a genius time and again. Herzog and Ebert became friends through their careers, and the filmmaker even dedicated his documentary Encounters at the End of the World to the then-ill critic. Again, I can speak only personally, but if not for Roger Ebert I’d likely never have seen The Dekalog, or Werckmeister Harmonies, or the “Up” documentaries. I’d probably also have skipped over Dark City, but I won’t hold that against him. He also seemed to like Nicolas Cage a lot more than reason would dictate anyone should, but again this was just one of the charming idiosyncrasies that he would likely have happily pointed out in his own writing – and he did.

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Perhaps it seems strange to say about a critic, that most adversarial of professions to the artist and the fan, but I can honestly say that I would not be the film fanatic that I am today if not for Roger Ebert. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing, but it inspired me to go back to some of my favorite reviews of his, like his somewhat-notorious three-star review of The Godfather Part 2, reading it makes me smile. It is fitting that Roger Ebert’s last published words during his lifetime were “I’ll see you at the movies”. There’s no place he’d rather be.

by Izo


124 Comments

Fantastic piece Izo, your love for the guy really comes across in what you wrote. Being British I never had that childhood connection with him, in fact the first time I really took him seriously as a film critic was after hearing his audio commentary on Citizen Kane, which helped me look at an old favourite (the film not Ebert) with new eyes.

I never went in for all the thumbs up business myself, in much the same way I never give films a star rating either. But his written reviews were always an interesting read. He's going to massively missed that's for sure.
Thanks, L.

I like the Thumbs system better than any other (I also have never been a fan of rating movies) because it essentially comes down to either "See It" or "Don't See It".

I honestly believe that the loss of Ebert leaves a big hole in film criticism. Who else is so visible? So intellent and yet still so compellingly readable?

Martin Scorsese was producing a documentary on Roger Ebert, and I look forward to see it.
The truth, for me, was that he was never a gateway drug at all but I was always glad that Ebert was an impactful mark of sorts on culture and society because he drew attention to the critical aspect of an art form that too often is seen merely in terms of dollars and awards. As a society we've almost completely deemphasized the importance of critical thought for all but a specialized segment of the populace. Ebert was a flagbearer in the other direction for that, and, even if I too often didn't match his opinion, I hate that that is now gone.

Plus he was a good guy, which makes the loss from a human perspective even tougher.

The one film he and Siskel championed heavily that I most remember was Fargo, which was released very early in the year but kept somewhat in the zeitgeist I think by their constant praise.
There is no other film critic/reviewer that I have read as much as from him. I was amazed by his output last year (I believe the most reviews he had ever done in his life in a year's time). It is a huge loss for writing on film and as Clyde says he was a good guy.

I might write something up on him in a bit.

I rate (usually using a four-star system) mainly to use for myself.
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