With Roger Ebert’s passing last week, I had a chance to think about what he’d brought to film criticism for more than thirty years. Ebert wasn’t in my stable of regular reads. I’m a bit of criticism junkie. I read far more reviews than the actual movies I see. I know my local critics well, and I have a few go-tos on the syndicated circuit, sites like The Onion’s AV Club and Salon.com. Familiarity is what makes reading critics work. I know their tastes, their peccadilloes, and I’ve developed a pretty accurate sense of when our opinions line up. I don’t have to agree with them, as long as I have a sense of why they feel the way they do. But Ebert was somebody whose writing I’d hit up when other critics let me down, when I needed to step back and get a broadly meditative opinion.
What made Roger Ebert worth reading was his fundamental interest in the quality of what makes a good film. Some critics have axes to grind, sexual politics, right-wing politics, the plebeian hoodwinking of the Hollywood machine. They’re all out there and they have their points (but not the right-wing ones). But sometimes you just want to know if a movie is good, if it has a story or a feeling that will transport you for two hours, it it can take you to a place that’s worth your precious time. Ebert was all about that. His take on the original Star Wars: “It’s as goofy as a children’s tale, as shallow as an old Saturday afternoon serial, as corny as Kansas in August – and a masterpiece. Those who analyze its philosophy do so, I imagine, with a smile in their minds. May the Force be with them.” He was the most open of critics, someone who really recognized the wonder of cinema in its myriad forms. “It’s not what a movie is about,” he once said. “It’s how it is about it.” Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be clever and cutting. On The Human Centipede, he said “I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it… It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”
I didn’t watch Siskell and Ebert At the Movies much, or its later incarnation Ebert & Roeper, following Gene Siskell’s death in 1999. What I did see was always entertaining, as much for the friendly sparring as the films they reviewed. Certainly the iconic “two thumbs up” embedded itself in popular culture. But I enjoyed reading Ebert because his writings gave an extended look into the why of what he liked. As a critic, he was magnanimous but not fawning, as likely to give kudos to a blockbuster as a little-seen foreign film. He also held regular detailed readings of films at universities, where he and an audience would pick apart a classic film like Raging Bull or Mulholland Dr., shot by shot. The very democratic spirit of that exercise, where any audience member could call out stop to raise a point about the film at hand, spoke to Ebert’s openness to look at films from all angles. You can read about his workshops in deconstruction here, and find a catalog of his reviews of “Great Movies” for the Chicago Sun-Times here.
He was also a Twitter trailblazer, as the snippet medium gave him a voice when he’d lost his own to the ravages of cancer. Here, too, he spoke to the need for clarity and quality, in an extended blog about his own surprising love of the service. He won the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, but only once. He was a classic small “l” liberal with a generous, reasoned and inquiring spirit, an attitude that seems at odds with much of contemporary criticism. He’s gone now, but just like the films he loved, his work remains. His last published review, on Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, is a perfect marriage of movie, critic, and a vulnerable moment in time, as the reviewer’s mortality looms large on the viewing itself. It’s a great moment at the movies, as Ebert describes Malick’s quest “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” Rest in peace, Roger, and thanks for all you sat through and shared.