An Evening with Roger Ebert & Friends
Saturday, May 1
5:30 PM Castro Theatre
429 Castro Street (near Market)
Members $12, general $15
The distinguished recipient of this year's Mel Novikoff Award—Roger Ebert—is the man whose infectious passion for cinema has enhanced the public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema for more than 40 years through voluminous writing, several television shows, his Web site and film festival. Ebert will be joined by prominent colleagues including filmmakers Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry and June), Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb) for a celebration of his long career, followed by a screening of his chosen film for SFIFF53, Erick Zonca's uncompromising 2008 genre-buster Julia starring Festival favorite Tilda Swinton.
Ebert at the Movies
By Jason Sanders
"How long could you be a movie critic for, anyway?" That was the question Roger Ebert remembers asking himself back in 1967, after being offered the job of film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Forty-three years on and counting, Ebert thankfully hasn't bothered to answer it. Ably and exceptionally present and enduring across the printed page, television and the Internet, he has become a veritable institution, defining the face and voice of American film criticism for at least three decades and setting a defiant example of survival through his ability to change with the technological times. Indeed, the more general and urgent question has become, "How much longer will anyone be a movie critic?" Roger Ebert's magnificently evolving career offers a resoundingly optimistic response.
"When you tell someone you're a film critic, invariably they'll look at you funny and ask, 'You mean, like Roger Ebert?'" said USA Today film critic Claudia Puig in 2006. "No single critic has the impact that Roger has." In 1975, less than a decade after taking over the Sun-Times position, Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize, the first time the award was given for film criticism. But it was a decision he made that same year that arguably changed his life, and inarguably that of film criticism in this country: to create a television show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, featuring the two of them arguing politely-or heatedly-about films.
The show later became Sneak Previews (then At the Movies, etc.) and the highest-rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public television. For many teenagers like me, coming of age far outside an urban metropolis or university town, the show was a revelation, our first introduction to film as something to be intensely discussed, argued over and treasured. Lost in the debate of its "thumbs up/down" effect is just how influential Sneak Previews was for cinema in the U.S., and the degree to which it popularized and legitimized cinephilia. The series opened audiences to passionate and critical engagement with films, and not just those then screening at the multiplex. More eye-opening still were the discussions of the films we had never heard of: those by Werner Herzog, Mike Leigh, Juzo Itami, Wim Wenders and Louis Malle, and by then-emerging upstarts like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Errol Morris and David Lynch.
"I wouldn't be here without you, Roger; you are one of those who put me on the map," proclaimed Werner Herzog during Ebert's 2005 Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, expressing his gratitude to a critic who had exalted him from Stroszek to Fitzcarraldo to Lessons of Darkness. "Roger loves movies more, and better, than almost any critic I've ever met," wrote Martin Scorsese. Ebert has championed many other directors through the years, from Wenders and Malle, to newer forces like Guy Maddin, Justin Lin and Walter Salles (recipient of this year's Founder's Directing Award). "I've always enjoyed offhand, short-story types of films in which there is not a beginning, a middle and an end, but a potentially boundless universe of behavior," Ebert described in his witty 1987 journal about the Cannes Film Festival, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun. "A great movie can involve not plot but life, and the daily living of it," he wrote in 2005. "Although movies can amuse and excite us, their greatest consolation comes when they understand us."
Able to exalt Spider-Man 2 as intelligently as Ozu's Equinox Flower, or to lead a class in a weeklong shot-by-shot analysis of Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar while at the same time pounding out eight to nine daily reviews of somewhat less immortal Hollywood product, Ebert agilely negotiates the high- and lowbrow, the art house and commercial, and the daily grind of the syndicated reviewer with the soul and wit of a true writer and the thoughtful, far-reaching grasp of the film scholar. (This is the man, after all, who contributed the script for Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a merger of high- and lowbrow that's not just an exploitation flick par excellence but one of the best films of the 1970s, period.)
Thanks not just to serious talent but also a boundless enthusiasm, including his ability to transform himself along with the evolving media landscape, Ebert today operates at the top of his game. The future of film criticism remains a real question, amid much handwringing, as magazines and newspapers reduce or cut film sections altogether. Ebert, however, stays one step ahead of the game. While still syndicated in print, he's also started a Web site and blog, the most-visited film criticism site on the Internet. Mixing reviews and interviews with personal, political and spiritual musings and updates on his health (Ebert's battle with cancer has left him unable to speak and without a lower jaw), the online journal has some of the Web's most dynamic writing, all of it ultimately leading back to the magic of the movie screen.
"I find that I love movies more now than I did when I started," Ebert wrote recently. "We have, after all, only so many hours in a lifetime to see movies. When we see one, it enters into our imagination and occupies space there. When we see movies that enlarge and challenge us, our imaginations are enriched. . . . A century ago the movies were invented, and allowed us to empathize with other people in a way never before possible. But like all inventions the cinema is neutral, and we decide whether it makes our lives better or worse."
For over four decades, Roger Ebert has made cinema his passion. Cinema, and our lives, are better for it.
Born and raised a few miles from Roger Ebert's hometown of Urbana, Illinois, Jason Sanders is a writer and archivist at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. He has written for publications including Filmmaker Magazine and Cinema Scope, and for many film festivals around the world including San Francisco, Seattle, Tribeca, Miami and Abu Dhabi.
Mel Novikoff Award Previous Recipients
2009 Bruce Goldstein
2008 J. Hoberman
2007 Kevin Brownlow
2005 Anita Monga
2004 Paolo Cherchi Usai
2003 Manny Farber
2002 David Francis
2001 Cahiers du Cinéma
San Francisco Cinematheque
2000 Donald Krim
1999 Enno Patalas
1998 Adrienne Mancia
1997 Judy Stone
Film Arts Foundation
1996 David Robinson
1995 Institut Lumière
1994 Naum Kleiman
1993 Andrew Sarris
1992 Jonas Mekas
1991 Pauline Kael
1990 Donald Richie
1989 USSR Filmmakers Association
1988 Daniel Talbot