Honoring Roger Ebert: A True Independent Film Advocate
Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert passed away on April 4th at the age of 70. He had been writing for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, and through his personable demeanor and unwavering love of film, he captured the hearts and imaginations of filmgoers, film-lovers, and filmmakers. From his articles, books, and television show, he provided insight into the world of cinema and at the same time acted as an emissary, allowing for more than scholars to enter into the discourse. He was the film scholar for the common man, and despite his celebrity and independent films’ lack thereof at the time, he encouraged his readers to watch them. After the death of someone who not only took film criticism to new heights, but also advocated for independent films so persistently, one must wonder just how important and far reaching Ebert’s influence and opinion was for the development of independent cinema.
He was the critic to read if you wanted to fall in love with cinema. When I first started college, I remember feeling like I was “in love” with it, but I would occasionally (more than occasionally) skip out on screenings to go hang out with friends and wait until the last minute to write a film analysis. Maybe it’s not until you see the fervor and passion of someone else that you are able to gauge your own, and in that respect, compared to Roger Ebert, my relationship with cinema was a mere dalliance.
It was through this great adoration for film that he was able to critique them the way he did. He described his critical approach as “relative, not absolute”. He judged them based on content and form, mastery and originality. More often than not he would find something redeeming in every movie, and with the vast knowledge of film history and theory, he wasn’t only a great authority, but an essential voice for cinema. And that voice, when spoken, lead to great strides in independent film. Actor, director, and founder of the Sundance Film Festival Robert Redford recently commented:
Roger Ebert was one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression. When the power of independent film was still unknown and few would support it, Roger was there for our artists. His personal passion for cinema was boundless, and that is sure to be his legacy for generations to come.
He was a great supporter of independent films at a time when they weren’t widely accepted or viewed. The 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams — which I watched nonstop in elementary school when my dream was to be the first woman in the NBA — gained the support of Ebert and premiered at Sundance. On At The Movies, the show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, Ebert said, “This is one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.” The film went on to receive critical acclaim and became the platform from which Ebert criticized the Academy for their voting system when the film wasn’t nominated.
Ebert was also a big supporter of Spike Lee at the beginning of his filmmaking career. After the release of Do The Right Thing, Siskel and Ebert dedicated an entire show to talking about Lee, his films (there were only 3 at the time), and his contribution to filmmaking. They had done this before with their show, but with the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Stanley Kubrick. Ebert essentially helped catapult Spike Lee’s career by holding him in the same regard as these great filmmakers. Following Ebert’s death, Lee tweeted, “I Miss My Dear Friend Roger Ebert.Roger Was One Of The 1st Major Movie Critics To Support My Joints,Especially Malcolm X And DTRT.-R.I.P.”
He even participated in a film festival now known as Ebertfest, however it was formerly called Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival (I like the second one better). It is organized by the University of Illinois’ College of Media, where Ebert is an alumnus. The festival doesn’t take submissions. It is comprised of Ebert’s own selected films that he thought were overlooked by audiences and distributors, including silent films like Nosferatu.
In a 2004 article for the Sun-Times, Ebert said:
As the major studios have increasingly focused on predictable mass entertainment formulas, quality and imagination have migrated to what could be called Sundance films: Lower budget, innovative projects fueled by the love of their makers, and sometimes by the determination of actors trying to break out of assembly-line fodder.
Whether you agree or disagree with him, no one can argue that Roger Ebert lacked intensity for cinema. Though many of his own critics may have taken issue with his dry wit and acidic sarcasm, his fans enjoyed his devotion and zeal for the medium. He was honest, possibly even painfully so. Sometimes his reviews would read like a punch in the face, but the kind where you shake hands and buy each other a beer afterward. And no, I personally didn’t always agree with him on certain films. I actually got visibly upset while writing a case study on The Exorcist. I was probably 12 pages into the thing, looked through his online archive for what I expected to be a rave review to add only to find that though he gave it 4 stars, he said, “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one –” I took that personally — I’d been enjoying that movie ever since I was 7.
In the wake of his declining health, Ebert posted on his online journal on April 2nd that he was taking a “leave of presence,” meaning that he “wasn’t going away,” but that we was only going to write a number of selected reviews, while a handpicked group of critics would handle the rest. He passed away two days later.
A passionate, humorous, and dedicated writer, Roger Ebert left an everlasting impression on the film world. To his readers, he left wisdom and an entertaining slant; to independent filmmakers, his respect and admiration.
I can’t help but be saddened by his passing. As a lover of film, I respected his insight and laughed at his humor all throughout my college education. So, the only thing I can do is use his last words to his audience, which seem like the best words to use anyway: Thank you for going on this journey with us, Roger. We’ll see you at the movies.
Keep an eye out for Roger Ebert’s final review, which is of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.