A Closer Look At… Roger Ebert

It might sound like damning with faint praise to say that Roger Ebert (1942-2013) was the world’s most beloved film critic. Critics are not generally regarded with affection, viewed as cynical killjoys who relish the task of tearing cinematic wonders to shreds. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, in the case of Ebert, whose love for the art of cinema was evident in reviews of his that could often be called works of art in themselves.

In 1967, shortly after graduating from the University of Illinois, Ebert began critiquing films for The Chicago Sun-Times, a role he would continue to perform for the rest of his life.  Along with fellow critic Gene Siskel he hosted the PBS shows Sneak Previews and Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, popularising film criticism for a mainstream audience. The famous phrase “Two Thumbs Up” was coined in reference to any film which received a positive reception from both critics. Ebert continued to host the show with critic Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999 until he was rendered unable to speak by surgery for cancer. Ebert’s health did not keep him from writing, however, and he reviewed films prolifically until his death in April this year. He was the first film reviewer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ebert is remembered for his caustic wit in reaction to movie’s he did not like – “Whatever they are charging you to get in” he said of 1998 blockbuster Armageddon “it’s worth more to get out” – and a poetic enthusiasm for those he loved. His passion was not destroying movies, but celebrating them. During his lifetime he published two anthologies of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies. Amongst these is his favourite film, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita, which was also the first film he ever professionally reviewed. “I’ve seen it, oh, at least 25 times, maybe more. It doesn’t get old for me. Age has not withered, not custom staled, its infinite variety. I’ve grown so worked up just writing this paragraph that I want to slide in the DVD and start watching immediately.”

The affection and respect Ebert inspired is evident from the testimonials that arose following his death. Steven Spielberg said that his passing marks “the end of an era”, and Robert Redford called him “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression”. Even President Barack Obama felt compelled to issue a statement, declaring “Ebert was the movies”. The most moving words, however, were Ebert’s own. In his final blog post, two days before his death, he wrote “thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

All of Roger Ebert’s reviews can be found at http://www.rogerebert.com/

Rachel Groocock

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