R.I.P., Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

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April 4 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert.

Ebert “came into” my life at the perfect time. As a child, I began immersing myself in movies, and just a few years later, I became equally obsessed with film criticism, going to the library and checking out volumes of work by James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Stanley Kauffmann. Shortly after that, “Sneak Previews,” the first national version of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s long-running movie-review TV show, premiered on PBS. Agee et al., while obviously articulate experts in their field, seemed to exist on some vague Mt. Olympus of film criticism. Seeing the equally articulate Siskel and Ebert on TV made the concept of critiquing movies more accessible to me.

Many filmgoers are often very quick to dismiss any movie critic whose opinions counter their own. I always felt just the opposite towards Ebert. His criticism was so compelling and heartfelt, he was fun to read even when you disagreed with him.

Nowadays, anybody who can set up their own blog can automatically designate themselves as movie critics. (And yes, I’m as guilty as anyone.) Ebert worked his way up through the ranks at the Chicago Sun-Times, eventually becoming one of America’s most-read and -seen critics, and deservedly so.

In the ‘90s, Ebert got an account on the then-in-vogue Internet platform provider CompuServe, and I corresponded with him fairly frequently. I’m not trying to say we were close friends, but I would often remark about some online comment he had made, and nearly as often, he would politely answer me.

At one point, Ebert did a Sunday-morning online and print column titled “The Movie Answer Man,” where he would answer questions from readers, and he sometimes fielded some of my queries to him. (One of my questions even made it onto Page 157 of Ebert’s book “Questions from the Movie Answer Man.”)

For anyone who wasn’t there, it’s hard to understand how much effect and influence a well-written critic had on fervent moviegoers. But when Roger Ebert passed away in 2013 (following his old partner, Gene Siskel, in 1999), it seemed as though a huge part of the old guard of great movie criticism had slipped away as well.

AGEE ON FILM (1948) – James Agee, an inspiring critic

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Ever wonder what causes a movie reviewer to become a movie reviewer?

When I was a 10-year-old kid just getting into classic movie comedies, I went to the library and checked out the book Agee on Film solely because it had references to Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields. Thus was my introduction to high-quality film criticism.

James Agee (last name pronounced “AY-gee”) made his reputation writing sterling movie reviews for Time and The Nation magazines in the 1940’s. Among other glories, he wrote a much-heralded essay titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era” that helped to bring silent-comedy icons (most notably Harry Langdon) out of mothballs and caused them to be re-viewed and discussed seriously among film historians. He later went on to work on the screenplays of a couple of gems titled The African Queen and Night of the Hunter.

Unfortunately, many film buffs and readers who revere the critics Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann have either forgotten Agee’s work entirely or have assigned his own work to mothballs. But among the faithful are film director Martin Scorsese, who serves as editor of the “Modern Library: The Movies” series of film books. In 2001, the series reissued Agee on Film, and re-reading Agee’s work (or reading it for the first time, if you’re lucky enough) proves that film criticism can make for reading material as compelling as any fictional novel.

Agee passes the acid test for any film critic: Even if you don’t agree with him, his writing is so lively that you can’t help enjoying it. His work ranges from three separate columns (three weeks’ worth, in print terms) to Chaplin’s much-maligned (at the time) Monsieur Verdoux, to the most concise, funniest review ever: Reviewing a musical potboiler titled You Were Meant for Me, Agee replied in four simple words, “That’s what you think.”

If you want to see what high-caliber movie criticism meant in the pre-Siskel & Ebert days, engross yourself in this sprawling book. It’ll make you appreciate the decades before every newspaper, newsletter, and website had its own minor-league deconstructionist of Hollywood blockbusters.