For anyone remotely interested in the working or learning of movies outside Bollywood, the name of Roger Ebert will evoke memories of one of the finest film critics of all time.
Ebert, who wrote film reviews for the Chicago Sun Times for 40 years, has passed away at the age of 70. For those who read him, the loss is incomparable and for his fans, Ebert’s passing away is a moment of grave introspection.
Ebert was no ordinary critic. His reviews were syndicated across 200 papers, his books are considered bibles on film criticism and his prolific social media presence made him a darling of the new generation. Ebert was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize way back in 1975 and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
In more than one way, he did to films what Oprah Winfrey did to books. His influence was enough to make or break a film. Ebert had many fans across two generations for whom he wrote, including US President Barack Obama who said in a statement, “For a generation of Americans — especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”
It was his writing and understanding of movies that acted as a magnetic pull for readers. Ebert retained a childlike curiosity and fascination for movies and the way they unfolded, a Peter Pan of the films. He has described his reviewing style – quirky, dry humoured and sometimes sarcastic – as a result of his journalistic background. Ebert did not have any specialized knowledge of film and his insights, uncorrupted by a hierarchical learning system, instantly caught the attention of the masses when he began writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Soon, Ebert had learnt so much about films that he ended up writing a screenplay for a film that became Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, a B-grade 70s film that was widely panned but was a source of immense pride to the film critic.
He was an avid learner and grasped cultural complexities effectively. Reviewing films around the world, some of the Indian films that came under his scanner included Lagaan, Gangs Of Wasseypur, Patang, Taal and Udaan.
Since gaining currency as one of the foremost film critics of all time, Ebert also endeared himself to fans and gained new ones following his brave survival of cancer and spirit to keep working. He contracted thyroid cancer in 2002 and had an altered voice that gradually turned into loss of ability to speak as well as the ability to eat and drink.
That did not diminish his fierce criticism of the Motion Picture Association of America for their skewed ratings and general distaste for technological advances in special effects and 3D that he called “gimmicks”.
Many are now wondering how and who will fit his big boots. Credible and innocent voices are already getting hard to find in an industry that is dependent on favorable reviews to counter the millions of dollars that go into the making of a film.
Ebert’s formula of judging a film’s merit – that the intellect may confuse you, but the heart never will – is something that Hindi film masses have always been telling critics in India. But the disconnect between the critic and viewer continues to widen across the world every week. Ebert was the rare figure whose voice cut through the noise and reached the common man directly in an effective way.
As the world bids goodbye to Ebert, let us sit back and catch that one movie that he never failed to extol and had watched many times over as a mark of tribute to him – Citizen Kane.
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