For a lot of people, Roger Ebert was American film criticism. They waited to hear his opinion of every new film and that opinion was often cited as if it was gospel. I think most people are like me in that they couldn’t tell you when they first heard the name “Roger Ebert” or when they first learned he was a film critic. Instead, he was one of those pop cultural figures whose existence we took for granted. Just as there would always be movies, there would always be a review from Roger Ebert.
I have to admit that it was rare that I ever agreed with Ebert’s opinion. I once posted a comment to that effect over on the AwardsDaily website and I ended up getting yelled at by the site administrators. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction. Ebert was (and is) a hero and an inspiration to a whole generation of film bloggers and online critics but very few of them seem to understand what made Ebert a great critic.
Roger Ebert was a great critic not because he was opinionated but because — unlike so many other self-proclaimed film critics — he sincerely loved film and that love came through in his reviews. When Roger Ebert was critical, it wasn’t because he was trying to show how clever or sardonic he could be. Instead, it was because he understood what film was truly capable of achieving.
(Incidentally, when you see certain pompous and self-important online film critics promoting themselves as the logical heir to the legacy of Roger Ebert, remind them that Roger not only wrote the script for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls but that he was also never ashamed to admit it and that it was a pretty good screenplay to boot! Film snobs may have embraced Ebert but Ebert rarely embraced them.)
As I said, I often did not agree with Roger Ebert. He was rarely a friend to the horror genre and he was critical of a lot of films I loved and he gave positive reviews to a lot of films I hated (like Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs, for example). I usually tuned him out whenever he started going on about politics. Within an hour of his death, the political ghouls over on twitter were already quoting him, not about the films that he loved but, instead, on his views about President Obama, as if the only thing that mattered was that they had lost a vote in the next election. Politics are temporary. Films are forever.
However, the great thing about Roger Ebert was that you didn’t have to agree with him in order to enjoy and respect him as a film critic. Ebert was opinionated but he was rarely shrill. Unlike a lot of the critics who claim to have been inspired by him, Ebert didn’t talk down to readers. Ebert may have been the most prominent film critic in America but he never stopped writing like a guy who just happened to love movies. In a world where every critic with a web site is currently bragging about how powerful she believes herself to be, this humility made Ebert a pleasure to read. He was a witty and knowledgeable writer and his brave battle with cancer was both heart-breaking and inspiring.
With the passing of Roger Ebert, the world has lost a man who truly loved films.
A lot of the current wave of self-proclaimed film critics and award divas could learn a lot from his example.
Roger Ebert, R.I.P.