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Friday, April 5, 2013

THE MOVIES LOSE THEIR BIGGEST FAN AS EBERT PASSES



Roger Ebert had my dream job.  Sit in a darkened movie theater all day long, well fortified with popcorn and soda.  Watch the magic on the flickering screen.  Go home and write about it.  Most importantly, get paid.

After more than forty-five years at it, Ebert was so good at this supposedly easy job that he had become an icon, one of the last of a generation of film critics that grew up in newspapers and magazines and really knew movies—their history, their relationship to American culture, their soaring triumphs and their crashing stupidities.  Ebert’s opinions had continued to wield influence despite the loss of his voice (and his ability to eat or drink) after cancer and complications from various surgeries took part of his neck and jaw in 2006.  But a resurgence of the cancer in recent weeks finally silenced the amiable critic.  Roger Ebert died Thursday at the age of 70.

Ebert had snagged this cushy gig as a mere youngster back in 1967, still in graduate school at the University of Chicago.  He started at the Chicago Sun-Times as a part-timer in 1966 and got the movie reviewing job a year later.  His good-natured rivalry with the reviewer at the other Chicago newspaper, Gene Siskel at the Tribune, led to a television show at the local PBS affiliate, SNEAK PREVIEWS (nationally broadcast on PBS by 1978).  The bickering critics often disagreed over films, but when they both gave a movie the “thumbs up”, you could be sure it was worth seeing.

When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert (who was a Gemini) continued his twin-reviewers formula with fellow Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper on AT THE MOVIES (in several incarnations).  Roeper has also been a frequent contributor on Ebert’s website rogerebert.com.

Starting at the very beginning of his career with a book on the history of his alma mater, the University of Illinois, Ebert was a prolific author on a variety of subjects (rice cooking?) right up until 2011, when he published his memoirs in Life Itself: a Memoir.  In 1975, he was the first journalist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Ebert may have been “without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic", as Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times put it, but that’s not why most of his readers followed him.  It is certainly not why I clicked on his website to decide between GANGSTER SQUAD or BROKEN CITY on any given day or whether SNITCH was worth my time at all.  I loved Roger Ebert because he loved movies, not just films.  He always said beneath it all he was "just a fan."  

Ebert wasn’t a snob.  Some things he hated (teen slasher movies, for example, and I’m with him on that one).  His favorite films were of the old classic school—LA DOLCE VITA, CITIZEN KANE.  But he was an equal-opportunity reviewer.  He watched everything and gave everything a chance.  He could surprise you by liking something snootier critics wouldn’t deign to review.  Maybe he came by that broader outlook in his youth, when he spent time writing for science fiction fanzines.  

I think the real secret to his success was that he always took the movie’s audience into consideration. His reviews were relative, not absolute.  You can’t really compare 400 BLOWS with COWBOYS AND ALIENS.  They are apples and oranges, each tasty in its own way.  You can have good oranges and sour ones.  Nice, tart pippins and rotten, nasty mushballs.  But not fair to try and sell an orange to someone who likes apples.

He explained it this way, “When you ask a friend if HELLBOY is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to MYSTIC RIVER, you're asking if it's any good compared to THE PUNISHER. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if SUPERMAN is four, then HELLBOY is three and THE PUNISHER is two. In the same way, if AMERICAN BEAUTY gets four stars, then THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND clocks in at about two.” 

I’ll miss Roger Ebert for another reason.  In this age of ubiquitous "expertise", he knew what he was talking about.  He was a true expert in his subject.  Today, anyone can offer up an opinion on a movie.  (I oughta know—I do it often enough!) Teenagers whose movie memories extend to maybe 2005 are encouraged to review whatever they just saw on the screen on Twitter and Facebook, in blogs and on Amazon.  Most of them have no context for what they see—no history, little knowledge outside the narrow genres or subgenres they like.  Some of them have so little respect for the medium they have to be scolded to turn off their phones in the theater and refuse to believe watching a pirated movie is stealing. Forgive me if I choose to discount their opinions, as loud and numerous as they are.

There are still a few old-school film critics out there.  I suppose as long as newspapers and magazines continue to survive (which may not be long), these lonely folk will continue to sit in the dark and watch the flickering screen, then go home to write about the magic they’ve seen.  And get paid. 

Though none will do it with as much wit, grace and warmth as Roger Ebert.

And in other movie news . . .
T-Rex in 3D?  Oooh, aaaah ...EEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!
This weekend marks the return to theaters of Stephen Spielberg’s phenomenal JURASSIC PARK, this time in 3D!  Of all the films to be re-envisioned in 3D, this is one that may actually be worth the hype—and the price.  If you can tolerate the technology physically, I highly recommend making an afternoon of this film, which has never been the same on the small screen.  Who doesn’t love those wide shots of the Hawaiian coast?  The peaceful herds of dinosaurs grazing?  Sam Neill?  The plausible science (being played out as we speak!  I mean, didn’t any real scientists watch this movie????).  

As Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Oh, yeah.  ‘Oooh, ahhh’, that’s how it always starts.  Then later there’s the running and screaming.”  Which, if anyone’s still asking, is my favorite line of his.

Information for this article provided by Wikipedia and "Beloved critic Ebert dies at 70," by Caryn Rousseau, Associated Press, April 5, 2013.


Cheers
Donna

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