Everybody's a critic
By Mary Ruth Yoe
Illustrations by Steve Brodner
Roger Ebert, X’70
In 1975 Roger Ebert became the first person to
win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. That same year the Chicago
Sun-Times columnist and his Chicago Tribune rival
Gene Siskel paired for a local PBS show, Opening Soon at a Theater
Near You. By 1978 Opening Soon had morphed into the nationally
syndicated PBS program Sneak Previews and then into Siskel
& Ebert at the Movies, and Ebert found himself with one
of the film world’s two most powerful thumbs.
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was the
1963–64 editor of the Daily Illini (reviewing
La Dolce Vita and The Parent Trap), Ebert did graduate
work at Illinois, the University of Cape Town, and Chicago.
the Sun-Times since 1967, Ebert is everywhere, including
the University’s Graham School of General Studies, where he
teaches a fall quarter, noncredit course (in 2003: “Not the
New Wave: Before and after the Revolution”) that over the
past quarter century has achieved cult status, with students returning
year after year.
Following Siskel’s 1999 death, Ebert continued
the television show, and in summer 2000 Sun-Times colleague
Richard Roeper joined him as cohost on Ebert & Roeper and
The annual EbertFest—Ebert’s Overlooked
Film Festival—began in 1999 in his hometown of Urbana. The
four-day event, which includes a series of academic panels at the
University of Illinois, showcases a baker’s dozen of films
that Ebert thinks deserve another look. This April’s schedule
includes a film and panel discussion marking the 50th anniversary
of Brown v. Board of Education.
He’s against best-of lists. “Lists are a device by editors
to give the appearance of a story without the fact of one,”
he said in a 2001 CriticDoctor.com interview. But his The Great
Movies (2002) does contain essays on 100 classic films—from
Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Written on the Wind.
“Movies are an empathy machine. Better than any other art
form,” he told RottenTomatoes.com, “they allow us the
sensation of standing in somebody else’s shoes. We are trapped
in ourselves, in our own box of space and time, and to identify
with movie characters is a way to get outside of that box.”
The “perfect” review, he said, should “allow a
reader to determine whether he or she is likely to enjoy or appreciate
a film—but that does not require the critic to agree with
the reader. The critic who tries to reflect public taste casts himself
in the role of the ventriloquist’s dummy….”
How to watch a film, advice dispensed in a May
2000 Sun-Times column: “If you’re really serious
about the movies, get together with two or three friends who care
as much as you do. Watch the film all the way through on video.
Then start again at the top. Whenever anyone sees anything they
want to comment on, freeze the frame. Talk about what you’re
looking at. The story, the performances, the sets, the locations.
The camera movement, the lighting, the composition, the special
effects. The color, the shadows, the sound, the music. The themes,
the tone, the mood, the style.
“There are no right answers,” he
continues. “The questions are the point.”
On the other side
of the screen. The critic has a past as a screenwriter, sometimes
under the noms de plume “R. Hyde” and “Reinhold
Timme.” His most famous opus is director Russ Meyer’s
1970 cult favorite, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Short list. Annual
guides to movies, videos, and DVDs; A Kiss is Still a Kiss (Andrews
McMeel Publishing, 1984), a collection of interviews; Two Weeks
in the Midday Sun (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1987), chronicling
the Cannes Film Festival; The Little Book of Hollywood Clichés:
A Compendium of Movie Clichés, Stereotypes, Obligatory Scenes,
Hackneyed Formulas, Shopworn Conventions and Outdated Archetypes
(Virgin Books, 1995); The Great Movies (Broadway,