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From New Hollywood to new media, Roger Ebert has seen it all

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“Our chemistry was real, our opinions were important to us, we were deeply competitive, we knew what we were talking about,’’ says Roger Ebert of “At the Movies,’’ which he cohosted with fellow movie critic Gene Siskel.

At 69, veteran film critic Roger Ebert has seen it all and seen them all: tens of thousands of movies, 35 years of thumbs up/thumbs downs on TV, a writing credit on Russ Meyer’s 1970 camp classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’’ and, more recently, a much-publicized struggle with cancer and attendant surgeries. Having lost the use of his physical voice, Ebert’s more eloquent than ever in his movie reviews, blog entries, disarmingly personal online journal (blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/), and new memoir, “Life Itself’’ (Grand Central). He took the time this week to play Q&A by e-mail.

Q. Newspapers are laying off their arts staff, the online user comment is king. Does film criticism have a future?

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A. Paying jobs are in short supply, but actually I think we’re in a Golden Age of film criticism right now, because of the astonishing talent that has developed online. There are no length limitations, and many movie sites produce work of a standard that was rare years ago. The fact that it is done for love, not money, may have something to do with it.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Roger Ebert.

Q. While we’re on the subject, do “movies’’ as we’ve known and loved them for 100 years have a future in a world of hand-helds and downloading and multiple media entry points?

A. Yes. A good movie is still good. What’s changing is the array of delivery systems. I value movie theaters, but I believe streaming sites such as Netflix and Fandor are invaluable in finding films no matter where you are.

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Q. I had no idea you almost became a priest (if your mother had had her way, at least). Do the skill sets of the clergy and a film critic have any overlap? An ability to distinguish between venial and mortal sins, perhaps?

A. That’s intriguing. I feel certain films are almost a form of shared prayer by director and audience. And it is good for both clerics and critics to remember with Paul, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’’ Critics also need a lot of faith and hope.

Q. You began your film reviewing career in 1967, a watershed year for the New Hollywood. Did you have any idea how lucky you were? What was the first film to really challenge you as a writer and a moviegoer?

A. “Persona.’’ I didn’t think I understood it. I eventually figured out it was exactly what it seems to be. That was also the year of the first Scorsese film. The 1970s were an incredible decade.

Q. What was the last film to really challenge you as a writer and a moviegoer?

A. “The Tree of Life,’’ and before that, “Synecdoche, New York.’’ They were both about the entire arcs of human life.

Q. If Gene Siskel hadn’t existed, would “At the Movies’’ have made it? Two schlumpy newspaper guys talking about cinema - it doesn’t sound like a grabber.

A. I think it needed us both. Our chemistry was real, our opinions were important to us, we were deeply competitive, we knew what we were talking about, and I think our schlumpiness helped. Harry Dean Stanton said he called his pal Jack Nicholson and said, “Jack, turn on your TV. There are two guys talking about the movies, and they don’t look like anyone on television.’’

Q. Have your health issues and surgeries affected your outlook on movies? Your reviews definitely give the sense that you’re taking the longer view of life and art. But have you become a “nicer’’ critic?

A. Maybe. I dislike hurting people unless it’s deserved. I don’t do it just to be clever. I think most people grow nicer as they grow older and accumulate experience. If you’re still a snarky fanboy at 40, something has gone wrong.

Q. Some people watch comedies after coming through a traumatic experience such as cancer. You went back to Ingmar Bergman. Why?

A. He touched on eternal subjects at a time in my life when I wasn’t laughing much. He nourished the parts that comedies didn’t reach.

Q. In childhood, you had the good fortune to see the first commercial 3-D feature, “Bwana Devil.’’ Now we’re arguably on the downside of the third attempt to commercially establish the technology. Will 3-D ever really happen and, more to the point, should it? (Also, how does “Bwana Devil’’ compare to “The Last Airbender?’’)

A. Well, “Bwana Devil’’ was never intended as anything other than a gimmick, and at the age of 9 I enjoyed having spears thrown at me. I feel 3-D is dying because often it’s merely a distraction, and certainly not worth paying a surcharge over a brighter, clearer 2-D picture. Have you ever heard a kid say, “Gee, I wish that had been in 3-D!’’

Q. Confession time: What’s your guiltiest moviegoing pleasure? The single least defensible film you love.

A. What would happen if I said “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’’?

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