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Why Roger Ebert Matters

Aired on April 14, 2013 (Episode 435).

Film critic Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. He was the most visible, prolific, and influential film critic of the last thirty years and his work shaped the way the public thought about movies and the way aspiring critics wrote about film. A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 up until his passing, Ebert was also the author of numerous books, contributed commentary tracks to DVDs of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and maintained a very popular blog.

Ebert rose to national prominence through the television show Sneak Previews which began airing on public television in 1975. In 1982 the show moved to commercial syndication and was retitled At the Movies. The weekly program was co-hosted by fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel and the two men brought serious but fun discussion of the movies into the living rooms of millions and in the process coined the now iconic phrase "two thumbs up." After Siskel’s death in 1999 Ebert continued to host the show with Richard Roeper until the program ended in 2010.

Ebert’s combined impact across a variety of mediums was tremendous but the ultimate value of his life’s work was the way it encouraged listeners and readers to think about the movies. The Hollywood marketing machine would prefer if audiences don’t think and just obediently consume whatever product they thrust upon us. What film critics do, and Ebert was a leader in this regard, is to incite consciousness on the part of the viewer.

The attempt by critics to make viewers think about cinema is mostly carried out through the weekly grind of evaluating new releases. But Ebert went further. He and Gene Siskel used their television program to highlight trends in motion pictures that they found abominable, namely the slasher films of the 1980s and Hollywood’s attempts to market violence and warfare to children. They also highlighted filmmakers that they deemed important and dedicated entire episodes to discussing the work of directors like Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. Ebert also took on the film industry itself, criticizing the MPAA’s rating system and critiquing the distribution strategies of Hollywood studios and national theater chains that virtually quarantined independent and art house cinema from most mainstream movie houses. And Ebert offered advice and criticism for his colleagues, writing rules of ethics for movie critics and questioning the usefulness of top ten lists.

One of Roger Ebert’s lesser known accomplishments was his efforts on behalf of independent and minority filmmakers. When Spike Lee’s feature Do the Right Thing was accused of potentially inciting racial violence, Ebert was one of the film’s most vocal defenders. He also was a staunch advocate of the documentary Hoop Dreams and took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to task for failing to recognize it with an Oscar nomination. In the opinion of film critic Wesley Morris, “No major critic did more for black movies than he did.”

Ebert also provided a platform for independent filmmakers. Some of this occurred through his reviews in which he encouraged viewers and readers to go beyond the offerings at the local multiplex. But Ebert took the initiative and began a yearly film festival now known as Ebertfest, which provided a venue for audiences to screen cinematic gems of past and present that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to view.

Ebert was among the most successful film critics for a variety of reasons. First, he was a very good writer with a biting wit and a snappy prose style. Readers often delighted in his negative reviews, which could be very droll, but he was also very elegant about movies worthy of praise. Later in his life, Ebert proved to be equally graceful while writing about other topics from politics to his own health challenges, and in 2011 he published a memoir, Life Itself.

Ebert was also successful because he never condescended to the audience. Sometimes critics get too cerebral or their judgments take on a false pretension. Ebert would have none of this and he liked to quote film critic Robert Warshow:  “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” In other words, Ebert wrote about how he thought and felt about the cinema he watched and he did not contrive excuses for so-called low-brow movies that he enjoyed nor did he apologize for beloved movies that he did not like.

In addition to making him accessible, this approach also made him authentic. Readers never felt as though they were being strung along and Ebert was honest about his own reactions while also making allowances for other people’s tastes and accounting for the purpose of the movie. If he felt that a film was suitable for its intended audience, such as the fan base of a genre, he acknowledged that and reviewed the film relative to equivalent movies.

But maybe the most important reason why Roger Ebert was so respected and so influential was that he loved the movies and it showed in his work. Because he loved cinema and cared about it he demanded greatness. That enthusiasm was recognized by those who read his work and received his criticism.

Perhaps one of the most impressive testaments to Roger Ebert’s legacy occurred in the hours following the public announcement of his death. Tributes and eulogies popped up all over the web and news programs of all sorts set aside time to discuss his impact on the culture. Among those paying public tribute to Ebert were many great and varied directors including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Wes Craven. It is difficult to imagine any filmmaker, much less a film critic, receiving accolades from such a wide spectrum of directors.

In reflecting on Roger Ebert’s career I realize that I owe him quite a bit. Some of this is professional. As a writer I have a great deal of respect for his body of work and I looked to Ebert as a role model for what critics can and should do for their audiences.

But what I owe to Roger Ebert is also personal. Movies were always important to me. I think that for a certain segment of the population movies are one of the primary ways in which we learn about the world, both literally through documentaries and historical dramas, but also figuratively through stories and the unique aspects of cinematic art. I learned much of what I understand of politics and power through Planet of the Apes, about heroism from Star Wars, of the destructive power of greed from Scarface, about the dark side of the human heart in Apocalypse Now, of social and community responsibility in Jaws, and of the heartbreak of mortality and the redemptive power of art in The Fountain. Of course movies aren’t everything but they are something and for me they were as much a part of my understanding of reality as any other major influence in my life.

What Roger Ebert did was introduce me to the possibilities of thinking about the movies in a meaningful way. Because when I started to think about films in terms of their form and their meaning I suddenly had the basic tools to start thinking about how I thought about reality itself.  For those of us who go through life largely understanding the world through the cinema—and with the proliferation of television and online videos that is nearly everyone in the developed world—this is a critical skill. As Ebert once said, “Film criticism is important because films are important.”  

Many of the tributes to Roger Ebert have declared his passing the end of an era. In one sense that may be true, as film criticism has moved from newspapers like Ebert’s own Chicago Sun-Times and onto the web. But the era of film criticism to follow will owe a great deal to the legacy of Roger Ebert. The many online video review programs, whether they are hosted by professional critics or enthusiastic fans, are a direct descendent of Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated banter and the way in which films are reviewed in text and in spoken word will certainly aspire to the wit and insight that Ebert so exemplified.

The balcony may be closed but Ebert’s thumbprint will remain for years to come.

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