Roger Ebert Challenged Us to Think About What Makes a Movie Great

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RIP Roger Ebert: The Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic, who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 45 years, died on Thursday, April 4, at age 70, after a long struggle with cancer. Two days earlier, Ebert had announced he was taking a "leave of presence" from his job, writing:

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved Rogerebert.com and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year.

Ebert wrote in the introduction of his book, The Great Movies, “Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people."

Roger Ebert and Chaz Hammelsmith

January 2009: Film critic Roger Ebert, and his wife Judge Chaz Hammelsmith pose in the press room with Roger's Honorary Life Membership Award during the 61st DGA Awards. (Image: © Prensa Internacional/ZUMAPRESS.com)

My memories of Roger Ebert start from when I was a young girl, watching him spar on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies every Sunday afternoon. As a haughty young 11-year-old, I was always ready to question his judgement, and went into shock that Ebert never liked Dirty Dancing. I remember rolling my eyes and looking at my friend, "What does he know? I can't believe he doesn't like it? They consider him a critic."

My first teenage job involved working at a video store. I could rent as many movies as I would like for only a dollar. And many of the people perusing the video aisles would ask me for recommendations, starting with, “Have you seen this movie? Ebert and Siskel give it a thumbs down.”

I would shrug. “It was OK. If you like that kind of movie. They might be right.”

“What do the critics know? I never like anything they suggest.”

I knew I would never change the customer's mind, and would walk away sighing, “Well. You know what you like.”

It was during that time, working at the video store, watching hundreds of movies, that my eyes began to open to the possibility that there might be something more to this world of cinema. I began to realize the movies that were great had an appeal to inspire, and that there was a truth in the stories they told.

My 11-year-old self was too busy quoting Dirty Dancing to notice one of the most appealing movies that came out that same year: The Last Emperor. I stumbled upon it with an older, keener set of eyes. It is a visually stunning movie -- and one which Ebert had given high praise to in 1987.

It was after watching The Last Emperor I knew Roger Ebert was onto something: There is more to a great movie than pandering to the audience. He pointed out, “If a movie is really working, you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked. You are having a vicarious experience. You are identifying, in one way or another, with the people on the screen.”

Ebert is one of the greatest film critics of our time because his instinct knew that a great movie should be full of layers that make it more than just "boy meets girl" and the usual one-liners. The movies should make us think, entertain us, and inspire us. The movies we watch should have a hint of universal truth and demonstrate the tenacious beauty of the human spirit.

Roger Ebert emulated that beauty, and in his final years. while struggling with cancer, he showed tremendous strength by soldiering on to contribute to this world with his poignant opinions -- both at his home, the Chicago Sun Times, and very vocally on Twitter. If there is one thing he has done, it has been to transform the way we think about the movies as more than just an escape.

Roger Ebert

Image: © Chicago Tribune/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com.

I would like to give two thumbs up to Roger Ebert for making me open my eyes and expect more from Hollywood. As his wife Chaz put it in a statement today: "The world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world."

Thank you, Mr. Ebert.

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