Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

I was already working on a blog post about what was next for Roger Ebert, when I read the news that he has died, at age 70. Just two days ago, he disclosed on his blog that he was once again stricken with cancer, but his tone remained upbeat, focusing on where he was going to take his community of dedicated film enthusiasts. The evocative phrase “a leave of presence”, which he used to describe the somewhat diminished workload he would be able to handle from now on, takes on a particular poignancy now. He will be missed by anyone who cares about film, and film criticism.

Though he was perhaps the best-known film critic writing in the English language, he was by no means a non-controversial one, still less universally admired. The force behind the “thumbs system” of film criticism on television, and one often caricatured as a slave of the star rating system, he had to struggle to get the recognition he deserved from some corners of the critical community, but even if his contribution to the art of film criticism could have been reduced to simply inspiring regular moviegoers to think critically about film, it would have to be considered a momentous feat. In reality, his did much more than that. The essays and reviews in his Great Movies collections betrayed the considered voice of a writer capable of nuance and wit far beyond the caricature. He remained readable to the very end, though his best work late in his career concerned things other than film criticism.

A prolific writer of honest and thoughtful personal essays, his widely-read blog posts about his health issues and struggles with alcoholism became a focal point for his eminently readable 2011 memoir, Life Itself. The book was entertaining for its anecdotes about movie stars and behind-the-curtain approach to journalism and movie culture, but what really elevated it was how Ebert allowed himself to be vulnerable. It’s something that came through more and more in late-career criticism as well, how he dared to put the emotional impact of movies at the center of his writing. And yet he never lost his often acerbic sense of humor, or his commitment to liberalism, shining through in the steady stream of Twitter messages he produced every day. The long-term impact of losing Roger Ebert will strike eventually, but the absence of his tweets will be immediately felt.

For me, film and film criticism has been inextricably linked for as long as I can remember. When I first fell hard for movies at age 12, reading reviews was of course a way to know what was playing, but also a guide to what was worth seeing. I’ve always been fascinated with canonization and the influence of critics, and for some reason it feels like Roger Ebert was part of that conversation for me from the beginning. I knew him through the caricature, as the “thumbs guy”, but he was the kind of critic even Norwegian critics felt comfortable referencing. Later, when I started reading his reviews, and dabbled ever so slightly in writing reviews myself, his writerly voice was among those I think I tried to emulate, however unsuccessfully.

And whenever I think about the rules of reviewing, I am reminded of advice Ebert has shared with readers. First, to avoid reading other people’s reviews if you plan to write about a movie yourself. You will need to keep an open mind and engage with the movie on your own terms. And second, I am reminded of an anecdote Dana Stevens shared when Ebert participated in the Slate Movie Club. As a kid, Stevens wrote Ebert, asking for advice on how one becomes a movie critic. His answer? “See all the movies you can, good and bad.” You never know when you might see something worthwhile.

On this sad occasion, that lesson about keeping an open mind is what I will remember Roger Ebert for.

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