It goes without saying that Roger Ebert, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 70, was America’s movie critic. It also goes without saying that there will never be another like him, especially not in these media-atomized times. No other critic was better known or (arguably) more listened to; at least as much as any critics are listened to about anything. His trademark thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgement was derided by some as being too simplistic, but really, isn’t that the first question people ask about a movie: Should I see it? Ebert understood that no matter what else he was writing about, whether it was Pasolini or Jaws: The Revenge, he was more than just a critic, he was a journalist for a large-circulation daily newspaper, and so had an obligation to boil it down.
Ebert captured a couple of firsts in his field. In 1975, he became the first movie critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize, for his writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. With the late Gene Siskel — his skinnier and slightly more cantankerous cohort from the rival Chicago Tribune — he co-hosted Sneak Previews, about the only movie-review TV show that was ever worth a damn; unless there are some fans of the pallid followup hosted by Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved for a few years in the 1980s.
Like almost every other critic out there, Ebert wanted to have his own film festival. Like almost no other, he actually had one. The Overlooked Film Festival (aka Ebertfest), held in his home town Champaign-Urbana every year, was used by Ebert as an excuse to show the movies he liked best. One year he led with Alex Proyas’ sci-fi curiosity Dark City, other years included 70mm screenings of 2001 or Metropolis with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra; it was an idiosyncratic event.
Ebert moved to Chicago to pursue a career as a newspaperman, receiving a few drinks from the great Mike Royko, as well as a scolding for being a downstate rube. In the 1980s, Ebert went on a date with a young and just-starting-out Oprah Winfrey. He wrote a 2005 column about the date that both clarified his role in persuading her to go into television and pointed out that “I was also the person who suggested that Jerry Springer [another Chicago TV icon] not go into syndication, for which I have received too little credit.”
He wrote about a sprawling range of topics beyond the movies, publishing a rice cooker cookbook, a little guidebook about walking in London, and a memoir and string of essays dealing with mortality, religion, atheism, alcoholism, and politics after his diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2002. (Range was never an issue: He also wrote or co-wrote two Russ Meyer movies back in the ’70s.) Surgeries and complications from that cancer caused him to lose the ability to speak some seven years ago, and yet he never stopped writing or making appearances.
Most importantly, of course, he wrote about movies. His annual film guides stand as excellent references, and his three collections on writings on The Great Movies stand as a superb jumping-off point for anybody trying to jump-start their own movie education. He knocked out hundreds of reviews a year, filling them with flash and tear and always wearing his heart right there on the sleeve. In a field packed with overthinking zealots and professional cynics, Ebert never succumbed to the faux world-weariness that can afflict the most heart-felt critic who screens three to four films a day in a dark room and then has to conjure up something to say about each of them. He always had something to say, and it didn’t matter whether the film was abstruse expressionism from some Eastern European wunderkind, a documentary, or the latest sequel schlock; he came to them all with the same wide-open wonderment and sharply-honed discernment.
In the Lake Street screening room in Chicago, he had his favorite seat, in the back right by the door. On one of my first visits to this cramped space high up in a creaky Loop tower, that spot was gently pointed out to me when I was seen moving towards it. In the small elevator afterwards, he was the most likely to blurt out an opinion on what we’d just seen, as though he couldn’t keep it in. That enthusiasm is best captured in the opening line to his review of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: “Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself while I watched it.”
His frustrations were almost as virulent, as he might have been the first critic to publish a collection of reviews for films he despised. But even then he often tried to spin gold out of straw, like with this line from his review of Abbas Kiarostami’s (arguably overrated) Taste of Cherry: “Just as a bad novel can be made into a good movie, so can a boring movie be made into a fascinating movie review.”
There is an optimism in that line which is difficult to find in the critical establishment. It wouldn’t have occurred to Ebert to give up on cinema, no matter how dreck-ish the Hollywood output became over the years. He knew that there was always something new coming along, and he wanted to see what it would be. His example is that it’s possible to love a medium so much that it can ultimately never disappoint you.