Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013) -- the critic as educator

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. He was an extraordinary man.

I was concerned when I read what has turned out to be his final piece yesterday, the 46th anniversary of him becoming the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Entitled "A Leave of Presence," it explained that he was taking a new direction with his writing, moving away from prolific review-writing in favor of doing "selected reviews" of movies he actually wanted to review, including for his wonderful "Great Movies" series, re-launching his website as a new-and-improved Ebert Digital, and continuing to work on various other projects. At the same time, it noted that the reason for the change was his health -- a "painful fracture" that turned out to be cancer, requiring radiation treatment.

Promising news, and yet not good news, both at the same time.

We all knew he was suffering from ill health, but he has kept going through some pretty dismal times. But who knew the end would come so soon?

There is a lot that has been written about Ebert today, and there will be a lot more in the days to come. He was the world's most famous film critic, a great writer, a progressive thinker, a mentor to younger critics, an avid tweeter. And of course there was the whole "thumbs up, thumbs down" thing that we now all take for granted.

What strikes me, though, is how personal the reaction to his death has been from so many people. He was that important to the culture, but in a way also that important on a personal level to so many of us, even if we never knew him personally, and never even met him. (The closest I ever came was reported sightings at the Toronto film festival.) Maybe it's because the movies are so personal to us, because we love them, because they mean so much to us on a deeply personal level. Maybe it's because he brought us into the world of movies through his unabashed love of the movies, introducing us to new things, to new experiences, so much so that the way we look at movies, and at the world around us in relation to the movies, was very much shaped by his guidance, and by his love.

That's certainly what it is for me. I was a film critic during my time at Tufts, writing reviews for The Tufts Daily, and I have a movie-lover for as long as I can remember. Ebert helped me understand the movies, to think about cinema generally, and to write about them. So many critics are really nothing of the sort. They give facile plot summaries, avoid anything in the way of serious reflection, render their judgment with nothing to support it, and move on to the next paycheck. Rare is the critic who actually seeks to do more with criticism. Yes, Ebert had his thumbs and his starred reviews, but as a critic he actually sought to educate, and to advocate, and to amaze. And he succeeded like none other.

Don't get me wrong, there are many other really good critics out there. (These days, I particularly like A.O. Scott of the Times, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, Dana Stevens of Slate, and Andrew O'Hehir of Salon.) But Ebert -- like his partner for so many years, Gene Siskel -- was there early on, and what he brought to his criticism was genuine joy, and that's what I felt whenever I read him. In later years, his reviews lost their edge, I thought, but the distinctive Ebert sensibility -- thoughtful appreciation for the artform, generous humanism, proud professionalism -- was always there.

Ebert understood his role as critic and understood what criticism could be. He was a critic, but also an educator, and that is where he meant so much to me, and I think to our culture generally. He was able, perhaps unlike any other, to combine serious criticism-as-education with popular entertainment. Which is to say, looking back over his career, he became a critic, was such a good critic that he became more popular and secured an ever wider reach, both in print and on television (and then on the Internet), and so remarkably built his popularity on top of his credibility, then building even more credibility on top of his popularity, and so was able to do with his criticism what he never could have done before: reach a mass audience with the whole range of his criticism without sacrificing his credibility, his commitment both to educated criticism and to the medium he loved. (Consider the title of his obituary in the Times: "A Critic for the Common Man." That, yes, but also for anyone who loved the movies.)

In other words, he didn't just write about the masters of cinema, about "arthouse" and international and otherwise non-mainstream movies, and he didn't just write about mainstream Hollywood fare. He wrote about it all with intelligence and passion. But in building up such immense credibility and popularity he was able not just to shape popular opinion with respect to largely critic-proof mainstream cinema but to build popular appreciation for non-mainstream cinema generally. (Just check out his "Great Movies." It includes a lot of films you know and a lot you probably don't. I myself use it as a guide. I want to see as many of them as I can.)

Ebert was especially important to me when I was first exploring the world of film beyond Hollywood. And I will always thank him for being such a champion of two of my very favorite directors: Yasujiro Ozu and Krzysztof Kieslowski. He didn't introduce me to them, but he deepened my appreciation for them, and I think he did a great deal to bring them greater renown, at least in North America. I loved him for that.

Ebert remains with us. Go read his reviews, especially of the greats. Read his books. And love, love, the movies. But here's what I recommend specifically: Watch Citizen Kane listening to his remarkable commentary. Watch Kieslowski's Three Colours Trilogy and Ozu's Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story (and read Ebert's reviews). And then watch Almost Famous (preferably the "bootleg cut" version), a movie Ebert truly loved (and I truly love as well): "I was hugging myself as I watched it: This is my story. Well, except in the details."

I can think of no better way to pay tribute to such an extraordinary man.

Roger, you brought the movies to us. And we will always love you for it.

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