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By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

April 4, 2013

When I was a college student in the late 1970s, spending 3 to 4 nights per week in a darkened movie theater, no film critic made more sense that Roger Ebert. Because I was a movie person, and not a TV person, Sneak Previews with Siskel & Ebert was just about the only show on TV that mattered.

Ebert had his finger on the pulse of what mattered to a lover of popular culture and the kind of genre fiction that grew out of the pulps and cheap paperback original novels — he gave thumbs up to science fiction movies, noir detective thrillers and Westerns. While Ebert was good on artsy films too, what I liked about Ebert is that he saw the value in over-the-top exploitation films and a lot of pure schlock.

Not that he gave good reviews to trash. For a thumbs up, it had to be good, creative schlock. But Siskel never “got” those films, and therefore he couldn’t be trusted; while he was endearing — he bought John Travolta’s white suit from Saturday Night Fever for his personal collection, for instance — he just didn’t have his finger on the pulse of pop culture in the movies. Ebert loved Taxi Driver, while Siskel looked upon it with suspicion. Leonard Maltin trashed Taxi Driver too, in his film guide — he and Siskel just didn’t “get” it.

Roger Ebert was reliable. Some have called him a populist critic. I’m not sure if that is his appeal or not. All I know is that I came to trust him to recommend more great movies to me. His book series “The Great Movies” is something of a bible. I was thrilled to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in there. So I took his advice and rented Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which I had never seen before buying his book. I’m still working through the books to find the indispensable films I missed the first time around.

Ebert’s legend will grow. Pulitzer Prize winner. Film critic who actually once wrote a screenplay for a film. Cancer survivor who didn’t let a truly devastating cancer surgery outcome get him down, despite the loss of his jaw and his speech. I don’t know if they have screenings in Heaven or not, but I sure hope so for Roger’s sake. After all, he’s used to taking in 500 films per year, since 1967.