Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013

Eulogy

Roger Ebert: A film critic with the soul of a poet

“I was instructed long ago by a wise editor, ‘If you understand something, you can explain it, so that almost anyone can understand it. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand your own explanation.’ That is why 90 percent of academic film theory is bull… Jargon is the last refuge of the scoundrel.   
      — Roger Joseph Ebert [June 18, 1942-April 4, 2013]

a07It was reviewing movies that made Roger Ebert as famous and wealthy as many of the stars who felt the sting or caress of his pen or were the recipients of his televised thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgments.

But in words and in life he displayed the soul of a poet whose passions and interests extended far beyond the darkened theatres where he spent so much of his professional life.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 45 years, and for more than three decades the co-host of one of the most powerful programmes in television history (initially with the late Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune’s movie critic), Ebert died Thursday in Chicago. He was 70 years old and was no stranger to hospitals. In his later years he was beset by a series of maladies, including cancer, and many operations that robbed him of parts of his face and the ability to speak (he was a celebrated conversationalist), and take long walks in foreign cities (London and Venice, most romantically).

Still, his death was a shock, coming only two days after he posted a relatively buoyant update on his popular rogerebert.com blog indicating that, even though his cancer had returned, he optimistically and hopefully would be taking “a leave of presence.”

“It means I am not going away,” Ebert wrote. “… I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasised about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”

He was also looking forward to the 15th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival later this month in Champaign-Urbana.

At the news of his death, the Internet was flooded with tributes and memories, TV and radio stations broke format to cover the story, and statements were issued.

“Michelle and I are saddened to hear about the passing of Roger Ebert,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement. “For a generation of Americans — and especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies.”

Prolific almost to the point of inspiring disbelief — the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine Ebert reviews on a given Friday, in addition to periodic interviews and potent pieces for the opinion pages — Ebert was arguably the most powerful movie critic in the history of that art form. He was also the author of 17 books, a contributor to various magazines, author of a lively and award-winning blog, active in all forms of social media and an inspiring teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Roger Joseph Ebert was born in the central Illinois city of Urbana on June 18, 1942, the only child of Walter, an electrician, and Annabel, a bookkeeper.

His passion for journalism sparked early. He published his own neighbourhood paper while in grammar school and in high school was co-editor of the school paper, published a science fiction fanzine and wrote for The News-Gazette in Champaign. His desire to attend Harvard University thwarted by his parents’ inability to afford that Ivy League institution, he attended the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in journalism and becoming editor of the campus paper.

He began selling freelance stories and book reviews to the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times during this time and after coming here to pursue a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago. In 1966, he was hired as a writer for the Sun-Times’ Midwest magazine. Six months later he became movie critic.

His reviews, from the start and ever since, were at once artful and accessible. In 1975 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first to be awarded for film criticism.

Most of his books understandably focus on movies. But in “Life Itself” one can get to know Ebert beyond the darkened theatres.

The book has also inspired a documentary that is in the early stages of production. It is being directed by Steve James of Kartemquin Films, the team that brought forth “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 movie that Ebert tirelessly championed.

In his career Ebert grew from celebrated critic to venerated and beloved icon. His courageous health struggles, first viewed with sympathy, eventually drew deep admiration and inspired courage in others.

In “Life Itself,” Ebert tells us that the first movie he ever saw was “A Day at the Races.” That may have helped set his course, but there would have been no way to have predicted how many of us — reading the newspapers, watching TV or plugging into social media — would be along for the colourful, influential and meaningful ride.

He is survived by his wife and stepchildren.

Source: Chicago Tribune