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How Roger Ebert shaped modern film criticism

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, April 10 2013 5:41 p.m. MDT

This 1969 photo shows Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert in the newsroom of the paper in Chicago.

Associated Press

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Countless movie critics and film junkies, this one included, regard Roger Ebert as a personal hero for the contributions he made to cinema over his 46-year career.

In 1975, Ebert made history as the first critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. He was a prolific writer, completing more than 20 books and thousands of articles, including more than 300 in 2012 alone. He also championed independent cinema and curated an annual film festival for undervalued movies.

But his biggest contribution of all was that his influence wasn’t limited to a specific subgroup of movie diehards. As much as he spoke to fellow cinephiles, Ebert brought film criticism out of highbrow academic journals and into the public sphere, discussing movies in a way that everyone got.

As the New York Times calls him in a recent piece published after his death, Ebert was a “critic for the common man.”

Unlike many of the influential filmwriters before him, Ebert didn’t adhere to a specific school of thinking. His reactions to a movie were often gut-level, and his rubric for assigning star ratings changed based on the film’s prospective audience.

He described his approach as “relative, not absolute.”

“When you ask a friend if ‘Hellboy’ is any good,” he once wrote, “you're not asking if it's any good compared to ‘Mystic River,’ you're asking if it's any good compared to ‘The Punisher.’ ”

If that doesn’t sound revolutionary now, it only goes to show how much of an impact Ebert has had on modern movie reviewers.

His ratings system, which puts mainstream films on equal footing with more intellectual fare, frequently drew ire from “serious” film buffs who saw his taste as being overly populist.

As always, however, Ebert staunchly defended his position. “It takes more nerve to praise pop entertainment,” he wrote. “It's easy and safe to deliver pious praise of turgid deep thinking.”

Ebert always encouraged a lively discourse about film. It was OK to disagree with him so long as one could justify their opinions; that was, after all, the whole premise of the long-running TV show he co-hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel, who died in 1999.

Before joining forces on TV in the mid-’70s, Siskel and Ebert were fierce public rivals writing for competing Chicago newspapers — Siskel for the Tribune, Ebert for the Sun-Times.

Sharing a camera didn’t smooth over their prevalent differences.

As arguments broke out on set, tapings would often last four hours or more, but this was all part of what made them so influential.

“The duo’s passionate debates taught would-be critics how to argue about films with intelligence and civility,” wrote Moviefone’s Gary Susman in an article commemorating Ebert’s 70th birthday.

The trademarked thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating system he and Siskel used also proved immensely influential, reducing movie reviews to the most basic element: Should a consumer pay to see something or not?

For this, the two men were attacked by fellow critics, including the legendary Pauline Kael, who felt their simplified review style undermined their shared profession. In the long run, even Ebert may have conceded on that one.

“Unfortunately,” writes Susman, “what the inevitable copycats took away were the elements that made for good spectacle on TV: the pithy verdict and the heated rhetoric. Pretty soon, movie reviewing on television — and in print — was something anyone with an opposable thumb could do.”

And in that respect, Siskel and Ebert are seen as direct precursors to the Internet blogging phenomenon that has disrupted professional film criticism in the last decade.

In recent years, as critical authority has waned, however, Ebert became an outspoken apologist for the dying profession. In an entry on his own blog titled “ ‘Critic’ is a four-letter word,’ he wrote, “A lot of people don't know what ‘critic’ means. They think it means, ‘a person who criticizes ….’ I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers.”

As many can attest, in his long and influential career, Ebert did just that, demonstrating for his readership and TV audiences how to engage with the movies they watch.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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