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Article by Teddy Durgin

Teddy Bids Farewell to Film Critic Roger Ebert

Of course, one headline I hated reading was the one that flashed across TV and computer screens yesterday afternoon: “Film Critic Roger Ebert Dies of Cancer at Age 70.” I have written many times over the years how the TV pairing of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert back in the day inspired both my love for movies and my drive to become a movie critic. I was a loyal viewer as far back as the early 1980s and their PBS show, “Sneak Previews.” In fact, the first episode I ever watched was the one where they reviewed “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I was 10 and became hooked on the show at the same time I was becoming hooked on a slightly wider variety of movies other than The Muppets and “Superman.” Over the years, the two of them inspired me to seek out countless films and documentaries I never would have seen otherwise. Of the two, Roger was indeed the one I “agreed” with more over the years. Not all of the time, of course. The single worst review Roger Ebert ever wrote was his two-star, thumbs down assessment of the original “Die Hard.” But apart from his TV gig, Roger was an incredible writer. He was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, and his written film commentary was simply brilliant. He wrote in a conversational tone. You could hear his voice when reading his words. It’s actually a really hard trick to pull off, but Roger did so rather effortlessly. As a result, he became the first ever film reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism (two have won it since ... sadly, neither of them named Durgin). I learned so much about writing by reading his reviews. I learned that you could indeed be conversational. You could also be candid. You could just flat-out write, “I HATED THIS MOVIE!” I also learned that to be a good reviewer, you had to know more than just movies. Roger was a REALLY smart guy with a broad range of interests and pursuits. His reviews revealed that he had a thorough knowledge and a keen understanding about everything from music and literature to race and religion to history and politics. I learned that you could come at a movie from odd, quirky angles as long as what you were writing eventually supported your final assessment of a film. Probably my favorite review of his was for “Return of the Jedi,” which he gave four stars. He didn’t start off marveling at the special effects, ruminating about the saga’s place in pop culture, or spoiling whether Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father as every other reviewer was doing at the time. He fixated on when Luke killed the Rancor monster in Jabba’s palace and how there was this one little moment -- it only lasted a few seconds -- where the Rancor’s keeper runs into the room and mourns the death of his beloved pet. He used that moment to illustrate that “Star Wars” was more than just lightsabers and space battles. There was an attention to human detail, and that was why audience members way out of the realm of sci-fi had connected with it on such a deep level. That was also the power and magic of Roger Ebert. His reviews paid attention to the human details of films and of life. His was not a cynical voice or a snarky voice or a passionless voice. His was a hopeful voice, full of honesty and passion. He loved movies. This is a hard column to finish. I don’t quite know how to close the book on this life. For the rest of my days, I will watch movies and wonder: “What would Roger have thought?” I guess that’s the best tribute any movie reviewer can ask for. Sigh. The balcony is indeed closed...

 

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