Ebert changed cin­ema, film jour­nal­ism

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Steven Zeitchik

IT’S hard to sum up one man’s achieve­ments in any ar­ti­cle or post. It’s even harder if that man is Roger Ebert, who in no par­tic­u­lar or­der was critic, TV per­son­al­ity, so­cial-me­dia guru, blog­ger, scholar, screen­writer and ad­vo­cate.

Still, there are some very quan­tifi­able ways that Ebert, who died Thurs­day at age 70, changed film and film jour­nal­ism. That’s true in very no­tice­able realms — re­view­ing and sup­port­ing movies, and adding a re­mark­able voice to the crit­i­cism canon — but in more sub­tle ones as well.

Here, then, are five hats Ebert wore that helped him leave his mark on cin­ema and jour­nal­ism.:

The hy­phen­ate. It’s ax­iomatic — if some­times bur­den­some — that news­pa­per jour­nal­ists th­ese days need to di­vide their time be­tween print, video and dig­i­tal ef­forts. But it was hardly like that a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago. In an era when “multi-plat­form” still re­ferred to, well, a va­ri­ety of stages, Ebert was do­ing it all. He was a print critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, a TV per­son­al­ity for a pop­u­lar pub­lic broad­cast­ing / later syn­di­cated show and even­tu­ally, with the rise of the web, a prolific and pop­u­lar blog­ging and so­cial-me­dia pres­ence as well.

The pop­ulist. Be­fore Ebert, there was plenty of smart film crit­i­cism. But movie-re­lated es­says could also be windy and in­ac­ces­si­ble. Ebert, pick­ing up in some ways on the demo­cratic spirit of Pauline Kael (though with his own spin) was part of a move­ment to change all that. Us­ing a di­rect and en­ter­tain­ing prose style, his none­the­less so­phis­ti­cated print re­views (he was one of the first crit­ics to win a Pulitzer Prize) en­sured that peo­ple far away from film schol­ar­ship could un­der­stand and use the same an­a­lyt­i­cal tools that crit­ics did. And though his TV show could take some knocks — it was pred­i­cated on con­flict and the some­times-ma­ligned thumbs-up — mil­lions of peo­ple who wouldn’t pick up a news­pa­per re­view were sud­denly learn­ing the vo­cab­u­lary of film crit­i­cism from the show.

The Mid­west­erner. Crit­ics in New York and L.A. may not have talked about it much, but long be­fore the web al­lowed lo­cal crit­ics to be­come in­ter­na­tional voices, Ebert was reach­ing peo­ple far and wide from the rel­a­tively small cin­ema pocket of Chicago. Stu­dios knew it too: They would of­ten screen movies for him at the same time or be­fore they did for re­view­ers on the coasts.

The direc­tors’ critic. Re­view­ers don’t prac­tise their craft to change how direc­tors prac­tise theirs. And direc­tors don’t ex­actly think of crit­ics ev­ery time they’re yelling “ac­tion.” But film­mak­ers do pay at­ten­tion to re­views — or at least they paid at­ten­tion to Ebert and his clear-eyed, un­com­pro­mised as­sess­ments.

The tastemaker. Film crit­ics’ sway has been de­bated since the first im­ages flick­ered on to cel­lu­loid. No one ever de­bated Ebert’s. One has to look only at his best­selling books — from the en­dorse­ment-ori­ented Great Films se­ries to evis­cer­a­tions like I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie — to see how much power he had in defin­ing what was good and bad at a given cin­e­matic moment. Or the way one of his first re­views, of Bon­nie & Clyde, proved pre­scient in its be­lief that the movie would come to epit­o­mize the ’60s. His first and only fil­ter was an as­sess­ment of a film’s qual­ity, and le­gions fol­lowed him be­cause of it.

Ebert

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