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Roger Ebert by Sudarshan Ramani

For the last few years Mr Sudarshan Ramani has been writing director biographies and synopsis for our film titles.  He recently found time to write a piece on the legendary American film critic Roger Ebert who sadly passed away in April of this year.

In his life Roger Ebert achieved a level of fame and visibility greater than any writer on film ever did. What makes this remarkable is that Ebert’s fame rested solely on his work as a critic. James Agee, his great predecessor was a well known essayist (of the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and the screenwriter of two classic films (The African Queen, The Night of the Hunter). And of course there is the great list of film writers and critics who became accomplished film-makers, whether it’s Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer in France, Lindsay Anderson in England or Paul Schrader in America. But Ebert’s fame was solely based on his opinions and views on films, directors and actors.

This fame rested on the popularity of his TV show which he co-hosted with fellow late critic, Gene Siskel, Ebert and Siskel at the Movies. The popularity of this show in America inspired imitators across the world but the original was the best of the lot. Mr. Ebert’s reach and influence widened considerably as a result of his online presence and the accessibility of his website which opened readers to thirty years worth of daily reviews, festival coverage and interviews. Indeed, one of the quickest easiest ways to become film literate is to sift through Mr. Ebert’s featured column section of “Great Movies” which covered films from the past to the recent present, in all genres and from across the world, dealing with film-makers like Hitchcock, Ford, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Bresson, Satyajit Ray, Andrei Tarkovsky and others. For many of his readers, whether in America or outside, Roger Ebert was their first teacher of cinema, and like all your favorite teachers you miss them when they are gone but you don’t forget their lessons.

Whatever we think of as film appreciation is embodied by the high level of craft present in his writing. As a critic, he made no pretenses of objectivity and was very particular about explaining his viewpoint about certain films all the while making it clear it was his viewpoint. At the same time, his great intelligence and developed sense of aesthetics made his viewpoint worth reading even when one disagreed with his judgment or his interpretation. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, Ebert didn’t subscribe to any particular philosophy of moviegoing. For Kael, cinema depended on a given film’s relationship to its audience while Sarris was the great auteurist who believed that films were the artistic expressions of its maker. One can see that Ebert somehow synthesized these two opposing perspectives. On one hand, Mr. Ebert tended to judge each film on its individual qualities and was fair to the independent films as well as the summer blockbusters. But he was also well known for his great loyalty to film-makers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Werner Herzog and Spike Lee, championing their smaller films as well as their major works. He also championed, in equal measure the legacies of Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Yasujiro Ozu and Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few of his favorites, in his retrospective columns.

While he began his career as a journalist with relatively little “film knowledge”, Mr. Ebert ended up becoming a first-rate daily film critic who brought a thorough knowledge of film history to bear on his views of contemporary cinema, and rare for a voice in mainstream media, demonstrated great awareness and curiosity to films from around the world, sharing his curiosity with his faithful readers who first learnt of film titles, director names and other stories through his byline.

One particular anecdote I first learnt in his piece on Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. On the great Lubitsch’s funeral, the film-makers Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday) shared the following exchange:

Wilder – No more Lubitsch.

Wyler – It’s worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.

Right now I can imagine people from across the world lamenting the absence of Roger Ebert bylines