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SFIFF pays tribute to veteran film critic Roger Ebert

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arts@sfbg.com

SFIFF I'm a film critic, but that's not something I'm always inclined to admit. Tell people you're a writer and they'll instantly construct a romantic fantasy. Tell them you review movies and suddenly you're a hypercritical elitist or a geek hammering out blog posts from his parents' basement.

Roger Ebert is, of course, neither of those things. Over the course of his career, he's shown the public how great a film critic can be. First, by employing a smart but accessible style that reflects a genuine love of movies. Second, by being more than just a critic. Ebert will receive the Mel Novikoff Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival's "An Evening With Roger Ebert and Friends." Those friends include filmmakers Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, and Philip Kaufman, who all express a great appreciation and fondness for Ebert.

"I'm not sure I'd have a film career without the man," Zwigoff (2001's Ghost World) says. "He's always championed my work."

The role of a critic is not to promote — that's what publicity agents are for. But Ebert has always been conscious of his influence. If he likes a film, particularly one that might not get much exposure otherwise, he will remind his readers to watch it. See, for example, Julia (2008), which will be screened at the end of the SFIFF event.

"I feel a responsibility to see and review as many [independent and smaller] films as possible," Ebert explains in a recent e-mail. "I do not limit myself to major releases. Audiences for these films depend more on critics because they typically have small promotional budgets."

It's one reason so many filmmakers and readers like Ebert. He's willing to review everything — whether others deem it high- or low-brow. And although he does give substantial attention to foreign films or limited releases, Ebert is equally unafraid to praise the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

"He just is able to view things, in a way, in different categories," Kaufman (1990's Henry and June) notes. "He can understand that there are people who like movies that might be called commercial movies, and he has taste and understanding of those movies."

And even when he doesn't like a film, Ebert treats it fairly. This ability, what some might call constructive criticism, has also gained him favor with filmmakers, many of whom are used to seeing their work mercilessly panned.

"He might not love a film, but he tries to give credit — or blame — where it's due, instead of ripping it apart," Zwigoff explains. "He analyzes instead of attacking."

Of course, Ebert has long done more than simply critique films. A quick glance at his Twitter feed and his blog reveals strong interests in politics, comedy, and discovering new talent online. These online outlets have allowed him to continue making himself heard following a bout with cancer that cost Ebert his speech: "During a period when I lost my ability to speak, they have given me a voice," he writes. And to readers who previously knew only one side of the man, his Internet persona reflects the breadth of Ebert's knowledge and abilities.

"I no longer think of him as a film critic," Morris (2003's The Fog of War) says. "I just think of him as a man of letters, who has written an extraordinary amount."

Yet it always comes back to movies. Despite all the changes he's undergone over the years, Ebert has been consistent in that he sees — and reviews — nearly everything. While he may not have changed the way the public feels about film criticism as a whole, he has elevated the form. It's not about snark: it's about wit and sincerity.

"Roger's not someone who's [only] interested in movies, who writes about movies, who thinks about movies, although he is all of that, to be sure," Morris continues. "But he's also someone who first and foremost loves movies, and you feel it in everything he does."

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