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Simonson Says: Thank you, Roger Ebert

In keeping with today’s Viewpoint, I’d like to pay homage to a great person the world lost this week.

Some of you might wonder why so much is being made of the death of Roger Ebert, why celebrities tweeted in droves after news broke of his death, when he was “just a film critic.” Well, first of all, he wasn’t just a film critic. As the Chicago Sun-Times said, he was “without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic.” He also wrote a few movies himself, won a Pulitzer and, of course, had his own TV show along with Gene Siskel. Would you say “who cares, he was just a writer” if Stephen King died (knock on wood, knock many times on wood)? Well, Ebert was not only a writer, but an exceptionally good one (as I hope all of you know, a Pulitzer is to writers what an Oscar is to actors). He just chose to write about film, which, in my opinion, is one of the most compelling things you can write about.

His TV show was a little before my time, but I’ve been reading Ebert’s reviews regularly for more than 10 years now. Way back in the days when my family was still thrilled with our dial-up Internet, I discovered I loved reading film reviews. I’d look up reviews for any movie I was even remotely curious about, whether I planned to see it or not; I love poring over reviews of movies I hate, mildly dislike or think look stupid just as much as reading about movies I love. Back in junior high and high school, when I had a little bit more time on my hands than I do now, I would tirelessly read every single review on the Movie Review Query Engine site for movies I was especially invested in. Very rarely do I see a movie without checking Rotten Tomatoes first — not that I always agree with the critics’ general consensus, but there are worse ways to gauge how worth your money a movie is than by asking the opinion of hundreds of people who love and care about movies and know how to articulate their opinions about them. 

Obviously, Ebert’s reviews are always at the top of the queue, no matter what review site you use, so I’ve read Ebert’s words on just about every movie of the last 10 years that I thought about long enough to want to look up the reviews. As Ebert was a big part of my inspiration to be a critic of some sort (being a film critic would be great, but I also consider being a columnist or an editor to fall under that category), I feel I owe it to him to be honest and say that, while he was one of my go-to critics, he did tend to gravitate toward the more whimsical and sentimental, which I found off-putting at times: For example, he loved the first two “Harry Potter” films and actually thought the later, more mature films were worse.

However, when he wanted to insult a movie, he really knew how to do it. Take, for instance, his review of the notorious “Battlefield Earth”: “‘Battlefield Earth’ is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.” Knowing how to praise something is admirable, but knowing how to truly insult something is an art.

I could pick apart dozens of Ebert’s reviews from memory if I had the time and space, but instead I’ll wrap it up with the line you all came here to see: Thumbs up, Mr. Ebert.

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