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MOVIES

Roger Ebert, a movie critic who spoke to both heart and mind

What are movie critics good for, anyway?

They don’t actually make anything. Worse, they judge what other people make, which sounds like the easiest and most parasitic job in the world until you sit down and try to do it responsibly — by which I mean knowledgeably and fairly, honest about your own biases as well as the objects you’re seeing through them.

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It beats digging ditches, sure, but writing about movies hardly affects people’s lives in a real, physical way. Heart surgeon or film critic — which one are you going to keep on the life raft? I thought so.

What good are movie critics? The question deserves to be asked because Roger Ebert — who a lot of us thought would never die and now, unaccountably, has — deserves to be memorialized. In large part, he matters for popularizing not just reviewing movies but thinking about them, talking about them, taking what they have to offer further into our minds and hearts. Much more than forerunners like James Agee, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, Roger — alongside the late Gene Siskel — democratized movie criticism (and through that door, cultural criticism) by bringing it to the masses.

There were film critics on TV before “At the Movies,” the syndicated show that Roger hosted with Siskel from 1986 to 1999 (and from 2000 to 2006 with Richard Roeper). Mostly they consisted of snark behind a funny moustache. Siskel and Ebert were newspaper guys, not video pranksters, and they took their movie love seriously. The binary thumbs up/thumbs down rating scale they employed might have contributed to the dumbing-down of popular thinking about movies, but both men knew their stuff and brought deep wellsprings of knowledge and opinion to the table.

Ebert matters, too, on the level of grace in the face of medical disaster. After a series of cancer surgeries in 2002 and 2006 resulted in the removal of a portion of his jaw, and a burst carotid artery brought him within a whisker of death in 2006, he lost the ability to speak. He ate and drank through a feeding tube for the remainder of his life, but online and in print, Roger was more voluble than ever. He saw everything; he wrote about everything. His post-surgery reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times seemed broader and more philosophical about movies and life. He was more forgiving of a movie’s missteps. Maybe, in a few cases, he was too forgiving. But in a business where it’s much too easy to give in to sarcasm, Ebert became increasingly open to what a movie was trying to do.

And not just the movies. When you read Roger, you sensed his love for the people who make movies and his love for the people who watch them. His scorn was reserved only for those who let audiences down by taking the easiest, most profitable, and most cynical way out. As long as a filmmaker genuinely cared about what he or she was doing, Roger cared about the film.

I can’t think about him as anything other than “Roger,” even though I knew him just better than slightly, through the occasional e-mail exchange or seeing each other at film festivals. He’d be jammed into a row with the rest of the pale ghosts, all of us wielding pens and notebooks and attitudes. With Roger, the attitude was simple. He seemed to sit down in front of a screen with a blank canvas of expectation, as if saying to the filmmakers, “Show me.” If the movie did, and it convinced him, and he was convinced of the rightness of what he was being shown, he would spread the word.

That’s really what the job is about, when all is said and done. Bringing one’s passion about a film to you, the reader, so you can go and experience it for yourself. Maybe helping you to decode it, but first and foremost urging you to get out there and see it, because what Roger understood is that a movie, or any work in any medium, is worthless if it doesn’t bring you back to the first-hand experience of life itself. That the great movies — the ones he filled three books writing about — have the power to change our lives.

Here’s how he himself put it, in the opening lines of his first “Great Movies” book: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds — not simply by identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it — but by seeing the world as another person sees it.... Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”

That’s what a movie critic’s good for.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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