Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert

A sad day for the film community as we have lost one of our own.  Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70 due to a long struggle with cancer.  It's a hard blow for a man who devoted his entire life to the cinema.  He was not only a film critic, he was in very essence, "the film critic."  One of the last of the very few influential writers and proponents of the cinema.  Ebert starting writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and was one of the few whose opinions really mattered in the sense that a film could be made by endorsement.  Introduced at a time in film culture where something like that really mattered and was treasured, not unlike Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or his late partner/rival Gene Siskel.  Through his PBS show Sneak Previews and later the syndicated At the Movies with Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, he was part of great duo that championed cinema.  I remember watching Siskel & Ebert as a budding cineast myself every Sunday evening (my own personal church.)  This is one of the few shows that held an actual conversation about film, free of celebrity interviews or naval-gazing.  It was simple and delightful.  One of Ebert's greatest and most lasting recognitions to the film community was that by watching and writing and talking about all movies, he may ways became one of "the" cultural tastemakers.

Quite simply, with his endorsement, he could put a film on the map, especially the smaller movies that needed the most help.  To think that it's utterly possible that big sweeps of the country may never had heard, much less desired to watch movies like Hoop Dreams or My Dinner with Andre without watching Siskel and Ebert give them equal time with the big studio offerings on their show.  Their patented two thumbs up was a lark, and a soundbite, but also brilliant.  But the show itself was far more thoughtful and conversationalist than anything else-- it was a discussion about movies by people in utter awe of them.  My favorites were always when the critics cited their best and worst of the year, and the annual pre-Oscar tradition when they picked the winners.  Ebert's writing also had that rarefied ability, as it read as a discussion and dissection, at once articulate, funny and friendly.   Which only hints at his actual power.

In late 2003, he famously extolled Charlize Theron's performance in the film Monster as "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema."  Ebert didn't write or say this for hope of ad-time blurbs or mere hyperbole; he simply thought so.  It was one of the many cases where his imprint, his seal of approval, his thumb up changed the course of a movie.  The independent film may have become a financial success and Academy Award winner without it, but his fervor and devotion meant something.  It meant something more because Ebert's opinion was the one that mattered.  A few years later, Ebert championed the film Crash (2005), naming it his favorite film of that year.  While the film had a relatively sparse pre-Oscars awards haul and the film, while a hit when released in May, had received mixed reviews.  To think his endorsement didn't help the film edge on to become the surprise Best Picture winner that year is slightly foolish.  He championed the film because he was moved to by his response to it.  The point hardly matters how often or not one might have agreed with his analysis, but rests in that his continual commitment to the film community at large.  Through his film reviews, television shows, best-selling books, film festival and continued love for the medium, the Pulitzer Prize winner was a voice of reason and the cinemas biggest supporter.

It feels like the end of an era now.  There's no more Kael, or Sarris, or Siskel and now, sadly Ebert has passed on.  It was only a few days ago that Ebert took a leave of absence, a testament that even though he was battling illness for several years, he continued to watch and write and his thoughts still did matter.  Of course, there's many bright and talented writers of film currently working, but none of them will likely ever have to hold a candle in the public eye like Ebert.  The nature of the game has changed, and the advancement of technology has rendered the ability for anyone to be a film critic (no, the irony is not lost on me.)  We're in an age where a movie can sink or swim by opening night praises or catcalls on Facebook and Twitter.  In that regard, it's a shame that we may never have a tastemaker with the demeanor or intelligence of Roger Ebert ever again.  It's a greater shame that we don't have Roger Ebert anymore.

The balcony is closed.

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