A champion: Roger Ebert, who introduced the masses to intelligent film criticism over a long and storied career, is the recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. (Pictured here with Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert)

SFIFF53: 'At the Movies' with Roger Ebert

Dennis Harvey April 30, 2010

You know someone is well liked when they’re used as the standard by which you fall short.

Several years ago I reviewed a film at Sundance for a national trade publication. It was about glamorously disaffected people doing lots of drugs and whining self-piteously about how hard it was to be them. This was not intended ironically. Suffice it to say my review was of the “Jesus Christ gimme a break” type. It wasn’t the last such review this movie (which never got theatrically released and retains a poor viewer rating on websites like IMBD) got. But it was probably the first. And people tend to vent their frustrations on whoever bears the original bad news.

Thus one day I came home to hear a long phone message from that filmmaker—no idea still how he got the number–ranting at length. The gist, of course, was that I sucked. The one phrase that stuck was less enraged and more instructive: “Why can’t you be like Roger Ebert? He helps filmmakers.”

No return number was left, so I couldn’t tell the director that unlike Ebert, who could attend a festival like Sundance and choose only to review among the smaller films only those he liked, I came with a pre-set assignment list of my editor’s choosing.

Logistics aside, though, the sentiment was interesting because it underlined a general sense about Ebert that’s seldom popularly applied to critics: That he’s a good guy, a friend to the medium and its practitioners. Oh, no one gets into reviewing without having some love for the medium (at least I hope not). And it should be pointed out that the man in question is one whose many books include not just the likes of Four-Star Reviews 1967-2007 but Your Movie Sucks and the even more emphatic I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.

When Roger Ebert accepts SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff Award (for “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema”) Saturday, however, you can bet there will be no sucking or hating. In fact, you can except a love fest of unpredictable nature, given that Saturday’s Evening with Roger Ebert & Friends will bring to the Castro stage not only the awardee, but also a number of filmmakers he’s followed and admired, including Philip Kaufman, Jason Reitman, Terry Zwigoff and Errol Morris. They’ll no doubt discuss the guest of honor’s long career as well as the state of cinema. Their voices will supplement the critic’s own onstage: Ebert’s nearly decade-long battle with thyroid cancer and various complications forced removal of his lower jaw. Recently a computerized voice system restored his ability to speak. His ability to write, however, has seldom slowed despite various difficult medical moments.

This celebratory hour arrives amidst much discussion of print media’s decline and the fading role of professional and/or paid critics. Ebert has been active long enough to ride every wave: He started writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, winning the first-ever Pulitzer for criticism in 1975. That same year he and fellow Windy City critic Gene Siskel began a 23-year run on Sneak Previews, eventually leaving PBS and continuing the show as At the Movies in commercial syndication. Most recently, when illness prevented him from continuing his TV work (a loss that no doubt largely contributed to At the Movies’ announced demise), he poured fresh energy into a widely followed blog whose musings run a gamut from personal health updates to politics to, of course, movies.

There’s little question that Roger Ebert is the most famous film critic in America. While he rose to prominence at a time when the most respected colleagues spoke to a more limited, uptown audience of magazine readers–think Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris–he’s maintained integrity no matter what medium he operates in.

When Siskel (who died from cancer surgery complications in 1999) and Ebert commenced their tube partnership, they alone suggested film criticism on TV could be both intelligent and popular, the airwaves then being full of such “personalities” as Gene Shalit and Rex Reed. Sneak Previews was indeed entertaining, thanks in part to Siskel’s frequent, apparently genuine annoyance when his opinions clashed with those of the more good-humored Ebert. It also made the very televisual “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach pop culture. But there was never any doubt its hosts took their subject very seriously, never stooping to limp puns or Hollywood gossip.

Ebert in particular has pursued and championed all sorts of movies, down to the smallest festival debut or arthouse release, while insisting on covering the mainstream in its entirety–even such predestined miseries as Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, whose star Rob Schneider famously took umbrage at his review. His taste is equally catholic, as he often waxes as enthusiastically about (good) popcorn flicks as (good) awards fodder. How favored filmmakers feel in return might be best encapsulated by the fact that Werner Herzog dedicated the wonderful recent documentary Encounters at the End of the World to Ebert, who had championed his films for decades.

That Ebert remains excited by such discoveries is one aspect of his enduring appeal; another is that he still seems to have a great deal of fun “at the movies,” and with his job. While he may vehemently criticize certain films (or the industry as a whole) for being morally irresponsible, especially when it comes to violence, he himself is no snob when it comes to appreciating “lowly” genres like horror and sexploitation. It’s worth noting that his only line-crossing ventures into actual moviemaking were in partnership with that late, great American bard of breast fixations Russ Meyer on the screenplay for 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, as well as uncredited contributions to two later Meyer epics.

His pick for an underseen, underrated recent feature to follow this SFIFF event’s live component straddles high art and low: French director (The Dreamlife of Angels) Erick Zonca’s 2008 English-language debut Julia, a quasi-remake of Cassavetes’ Gloria featuring Tilda Swinton as an alcoholic nutcase who kidnaps a child heir for ransom. It’s a galvanizingly over-the-top turn in an otherwise naturalistic film–a combustive combination you can be sure Ebert will defend passionately.

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