Today brings news that legendary film critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. It’s hard to argue that there has been a more influential film critic in my lifetime, and certainly none that elevated film criticism to an art form like he did. While many critics before him, such as Pauline Kael, helped people to take film seriously as an art form, Ebert was the first popular critic to truly champion a well-made film no matter the genre or subject matter.
He was the kind of critic that readily acknowledged that a film didn’t have to be a serious-minded, Oscar-worthy film to be a great film. He made it okay to give a thumbs up vote to schlock, provided it was well-made schlock, and I cannot emphasize how truly important that is to the institution of film criticism. While I may not have always seen eye to eye with his criticism, I valued it in a way that I valued few other critics.
He truly understood the language of cinema, and helped to make difficult films more accessible, and show the value in a good film where others may have dismissed it outright. And none of this is to say that he loved everything. His book Your Film Sucks, gathers some of his most scathing reviews and shows how sharp his knives could be when they were drawn. But he understood when and how to make that distinction, which I feel is his single greatest contribution to world of film criticism. He judged a film on how well it worked in comparison to what it set out to do, which is something that not a lot of critics before him took the time to do. Many would just casually dismiss a film such as Matchstick Men, where he would take the time to understand the filmmakers intent and score the film accordingly.
I cannot overstate the importance his criticism had on my young film going life. Every Friday I would tear into the entertainment section of the local paper (The Bergen Record in northern NJ) to read his syndicated reviews (one of the earliest I remember reading was his review for Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989). Honestly, how many ten year olds cared what a film critic thought about a film, but to me, his opinion mattered. I valued it, even at a young age, and he helped to make me more than just a casual filmgoer.
Roger Ebert loved movies, and this, more than anything else, informed his criticism of film. He didn’t divorce this love of film from his job, and he could write eloquently about films that others would likely just reject. His love of film helped him to champion the underdog and it also led him to eloquently tear down abject failures. He could take it personally when a filmmaker fundamentally failed, and a negative review from him could be enough to make a filmmaker take stock of their work before trying again.
It’s become to easy to dismiss the art of criticism in a culture where anyone with an internet connection can voice their opinion on art, so the loss of a titan like Ebert is immeasurable. In addition to his work in print, he was also one of the first critics to embrace the blogosphere and use the internet as a way to publish articles and other thoughtful pieces that a newspaper might otherwise not make room for. It’s hard to know what impact his loss will have on the critic community, I just hope that whomever is selected as his successor is thoughtful and considerate enough to love film as deeply as Mr. Ebert did.
The fact that he continued his work even after cancer had ravaged most of his face & body is a testament to how deeply felt his love of what he did truly was. He wasn’t one to turn and run in the face of adversity, and it grows his myth even larger in the wake of his passing. Roger Ebert will not be replaced. It’s as simple as that. Much as he struggled to find a replacement in the passing of his long time critic partner Gene Siskel in 1999, the world will try (and fail) to replace Ebert atop the film critic pedestal. Someone else may come along and take over his job as critic at the Sun-Times or take over his blog, but no one will ever replace the man himself.
I would personally like to extend my deepest condolences to his wife Chaz, who was by his side for so many years and became a symbol of strength in the face of adversity. It is a truly sad day for anyone in my line of work, but it is an especially sad day for anyone who loves film, because we’ve lost one of our own. Rest in peace, good sir. You will be missed.