Witnessing the outpouring of sentiment on Roger Ebert's death has been revelatory -- both a stunning testament to one man's outsize influence on film criticism over five decades, and more broadly, a timely reminder of the enduring importance of film in our society.
Ebert certainly was on to something when he first sat down with fellow hometown Chicago critic Gene Siskel back in the late '70s to launch "Sneak Previews." Together they managed to turn movie discussion and debate into must-watch television.
But Roger had the goods way before; it was evident from the first pieces he wrote for The Chicago Sun-Times more than a decade earlier.
In building our own movie recommendation site, Ebert was a top referral source because he was such a brilliantly descriptive writer. Fundamentally, he watched and assessed movies as stories -- by which I mean he knew that good stories (by and large) were critical to outstanding films.
Ebert had a genius for giving you the flavor of a story so that you could understand it, and he always knew just how far to go without getting into spoiler territory.
There was no -- pardon me -- New York Times fussiness about his writing. It was clean, descriptive, yet could also transmit real feeling. Who could ever have doubted that Roger Ebert really and truly loved great movies?
And he was most always fair and honest about movies he didn't care for. He was never mean-spirited. When a movie was condemned, you always felt it got the hearing it deserved.
Ebert's passing is the passing of an era -- and he's left us at a time of transformation in what we watch and how we watch it.
Of course, there are fewer critics we know and trust, and fewer newspapers in which to discover them. More often, viewers (particularly adults over 25) are choosing to rent or stream movies rather than go to movie theaters -- for price, convenience, and yes, quality -- reasons. (After all, much of what comes to the multiplex is clearly intended for a younger audience, and at around 10 bucks per ticket vs. three for streaming or renting, it's pretty easy to resist.)
Also, technology is changing how we choose our next movie. Today we are more likely to pick something based on aggregated viewer ratings (IMDb), Netflix algorithms, or social media.
Then again, we may be so wrapped up in those addictive paid cable series that we're simply not watching as many self-contained feature films anymore.
This is in fact a trend on Netflix right now, which seems ironic, in that more great movies -- old and new, domestic and foreign, narrative and documentary -- are literally at our fingertips than ever before.
And this emerging reality will only get more apparent in just the next few years.
So, given this environment, and the reverence inspired by the life and legacy of Roger Ebert, shouldn't we take to heart -- and put it into practice -- what he stood for?
This is what I personally take from his example: Use technology to find and watch great independent and foreign films that didn't make it to a theater near you -- or made it for about five minutes. Ebert believed that most movie fans are intelligent and recognize quality when they see it. Seek out that quality. If you are indeed what you eat, you are what you watch as well.
Celebrate outstanding older films in general, and certainly if an outstanding new one is not at hand. If you read Ebert's Great Movies books, you discover the cinematic treasures of the past -- films he truly adored and appreciated. Watch them. Movies are like music -- the really good stuff refuses to get old.
Watch great films again, and challenge your established viewpoint. As director Robert Altman said: "It's better to see a great movie again, than an average one the first time. Because even though the movie hasn't changed, you have." Ebert would screen certain movies after a period of time, and was never afraid to revise his opinion.
Look for films that relate human stories. While we all crave entertainment, fantasy and escape from movies, some of our most enduring classics also teach important lessons about how to live. Ebert believed in the power of film to inform and enlighten, and always championed such films, when done well.
Finally, spread joy and have fun all along the way -- with your movies, and in your life. This is ultimately what Ebert was all about, and he re-affirmed it -- gallantly and eloquently -- as death approached.
For all he did, for all he was, for all he represented, a grateful public gives the late Roger Ebert an enthusiastic and heartfelt "two thumbs up."
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