Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In praise of Roger Ebert

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The ninth annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival -- Ebertfest '07 -- opens tomorrow at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Despite going through a prolonged battle with his health -- cancer of the salivary gland, a tracheostomy, multiple surgeries, more procedures planned -- Ebert will be there in person. And you know what? Through it all, he is still Roger Ebert, one of the world's great cinephiles, a fine critic, and a courageous man: "I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers... I'm not going to miss my festival."

And that's how it should be. It's easy to dismiss Ebert as a celebrity critic who has reduced criticism down to multiplex-friendly pandering to the masses -- what with his thumb up or down for every movie -- but those who know Ebert's work know that he is so much more than that, that in fact his famous thumb is but a popular gimmick, that in fact a profound film critic capable of genuinely brilliant analysis, an enthusiastic student of the cinema who genuinely loves movies, and a teacher of the cinema in possession of a wealth of learning.

I encourage you to visit his website regularly for all the latest news, and hopefully soon for more reviews, as well as for all his old reviews in the archives, his incomparable movie glossary, commentary on film and the arts, his reports from the world's top film festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, which he loves, and which I, a Toronto resident, have had the good fortune to attend over many years), his Oscar-related articles, and -- and this is my favourite feature -- his Great Movies.

I may not agree with his review of this or that movie, but I always respect his opinion and I always learn a lot from what he has to say about any movie. Indeed, he is as much teacher as critic. (Consider his incredibly insightful commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD.) And this is especially true of the Great Movies, his compendium of reviews and analyses of many of the greatest films of all time. Many of my own favourites are in there -- there are simply too many to mention -- but collectively these pieces amount to a history of film, by film, that is truly astonishing in scope.

If there is one thing for which I must thank Ebert above all else, however, it is his promotion of in my view two of the very best directors of all time, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Yasujiro Ozu. Both would be known and celebrated without Ebert, of course, but neither would be known and celebrated as well without Ebert's efforts to introduce their films to American audiences, as well as to all of us who have been touched by Ebert's criticism. Whether it's The Decalogue or the Three Colours trilogy, Tokyo Story or Floating Weeds (for which he also provides commentary on the amazing Criterion DVD), we are all richer for what you have done.

Mr. Ebert, I wish you well.

It's great news that you're going to be at the opening of Ebertfest, and I know I speak for many of us cinephiles when I say I look forward to your return to what you do so well.

(See also Melissa's wonderful post at Shakesville.)

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