Sunday, April 7, 2013

Roger Ebert: 1942 - 2013

I think it's safe to say that the average moviegoer doesn't put much stock in the opinions of movie critics. If they did, the weekly box office reports would look a lot different than they do now. Although I'm far from the average moviegoer, I don't pay much attention to what most critics say, either. I read their reviews, sure, and I can usually take something of value away from what they say, but in the end, their endorsements or their condemnations mean very little to me. (For the record, I don't consider myself a movie critic, just someone who likes to write about movies.) The one, major exception to this rule has always been Roger Ebert, who tragically passed away a few days ago, leaving a gaping hole in the world of film criticism that will likely never be filled.

Roger Ebert has been a part of virtually my entire life as a movie fan. At some point in my young life, it became apparent to me that movies were more than just a way to kill a few hours; they were a form of art, and they could mean something. It was at this point that I began to watch the movie review show Sneak Previews, featuring Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, on public television. Although I was frequently dumbfounded as to why they panned many of the movies I loved (often, their "Dog of the Week" was the movie I was looking forward to the most), it became apparent to me that their opinions stemmed from a genuine love of cinema. I also became aware that certain types of movies I might have dismissed out of hand could actually be worth watching. I continued to watch the various incarnations of their show for many years, with various co-hosts filling in following Siskel's death in 1999.

In more recent years, Ebert's online column was often my first stop when researching a new film, and his blog and Twitter feed found him branching out and writing about other subjects just as eloquently as he did about film. While he may have lost his ability to speak following cancer surgery several years ago, his robust online presence demonstrated that he had not lost his voice. So many critics seem only to care about demonstrating their intellectual superiority by ripping films apart, but if Ebert was hard on a film, it was usually because he was disappointed by its failure to take full advantage of what the medium is capable of. With that being said, Ebert was often able to find something worthwhile in films that other critics didn't have the time of day for. He was often remarkably prescient in appreciating the true value of certain films well ahead of others, such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch; he was able to look past the film's graphic violence and recognize it for the masterpiece it is now (almost universally) considered to be.

The increasing prevalence of online journalism means that practically anyone can be a critic these days, given enough time and exposure. A glance at some of the aggregated reviews on a site like Rotten Tomatoes presents one with a list of a few familiar names and many more unfamiliar ones. While this approach may provide a much greater quantity of opinions, it's unlikely that we will soon see another critic whose opinion will mean as much to me, and to many of us, as Roger Ebert's did. He was truly one of the greats.

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