In the week of Roger Ebert’s death last week, there have been so many great pieces written by film critics and movie fans about his inspiring work. It seems unnecessary to add yet another voice to the chorus of acclaim for the fallen critic. What more can I say than what’s already been presented by others? There are countless personal experiences of meeting with Ebert in person or online. I have nothing so profound or interesting. I could easily ramble for several thousand words about Ebert’s importance to film culture and passionate writers that adore the medium. Instead, using the Top 5 List format seems appropriate given the attention on Ebert’s year-end lists. I’ve called our five reasons for why he’s been so influential on my experience in becoming a movie lover. This is hardly a comprehensive list and merely scratches the surface of his impact on the film community.
5. The Great Movies Series
A big challenge for any film lover is catching up with the hordes of classics from around the world. How do we pare them down to the most essential choices? Ebert's Great Movies series provides a guide for cinephiles trying to expand their horizons. Beyond this valuable service, he also gives an extended review of each selection. Back in 2006, I embarked on the daring venture of checking out all the movies from Ebert’s first Great Movies book that I hadn’t yet seen. I wrote a post about each one for my brother’s website. My writing wasn’t great, but the experience of checking out so many remarkable films was amazing. Ebert’s choices include thrilling commercial fare like Raiders of the Lost Ark alongside art films like Persona and L’Avventura. He strikes a cool balance and includes few clunkers in the list.
4. Spotlighting Overlooked Films
Ebert's large audience has given him the opportunity to spotlight films that haven't grabbed a huge audience. A great example is a movie like 1998's Dark City, the brilliant mix of noir and sci-fi from Alex Proyas. Ebert named it as his #1 film of that year, and he contributed an excellent commentary for the DVD release. His annual film festival in Champaign has become a huge success. Now known as Ebertfest, it began as Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival 15 years ago. I definitely need to make the short drive and check out this festival in the near future. This year's slate includes remarkable pictures like Oslo, August 31st; Bernie; and Days of Heaven. It will also screen the Disney World satire Escape From Tomorrow, which made waves at Sundance earlier this year. This festival is a perfect example of how Ebert went beyond reviewing the latest movies each week.
3. Bringing Film Criticism to the Mainstream
It's impossible to comprehend how the world of film criticism would look without the rise of Siskel and Ebert. At the Movies started as a small-scale production and eventually made them household names around the world. There's an intriguing back-and-forth conversation between Ebert and Richard Corliss that discusses whether their "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach was good for movies. Both make good points, but it's tough to disagree with the idea that Siskel and Ebert changed the world for the better. Their arguments (especially in the outtakes) became legendary, and these conversations change the way that many of us thought about movies. Their discussions were intelligent, yet we rarely felt like they were talking down to us. That's a very difficult combination, especially in a realm like film culture.
2. His Encouragement of the Next Generation of Writers
Following Ebert's death, it felt like nearly every blogger that I follow wrote a heartfelt piece about his effect on their life. These weren't the typical news items delivered out of necessity for an influential artist. Instead, the writers gave personal accounts for how Ebert had changed their lives. This wonderful essay from Ryan McNeil at The Matinee is just one of so many excellent posts. Along with serving as a model for so many young film critics, Ebert gave opportunities to plenty of new voices. His far-flung correspondents on his site were hardly household names. The recent PBS incarnation of Ebert Presents at the Movies had young Ignatiy Vishnevetsky as a co-host, and he was hardly a household name. Ebert also hired Matt Singer, Kartina Richardson, Kim Morgan, and others to complement the well-known contributors on the show. While other established critics rejected bloggers as sub-standard amateurs, he embraced them as part of an inclusive community.
1. Roger Ebert Was More than Just a Film Critic
During his later years, Ebert battled devastating illnesses and underwent multiple surgeries. Complications with these operations cost him the use of his jaw and his voice. Instead of fading into the background, he remained front and center despite his very different appearance. After reading his autobiography Life Itself a few years ago, my admiration for him grew well beyond his film criticism. He’s also spoken out on politics and social issues and always has plenty of support behind his views. He contradicts the idea of film experts as isolationists separated from the world. His blog posts have covered a wide spectrum of topics and are written with the same skill as his movie reviews. Ebert made the most of his life right up to the end and never let his challenges define him. He kept writing all the way to the end and delivered a legacy that goes well beyond his work in the film world.