Just days after announcing that he planned to cut back on his writing responsibilities and settle into a state of semi-retirement, America’s preeminent film critic Roger Ebert passed away on Thursday. This follows a famously arduous battle with cancer that left him for the past few years without a lower jaw or the ability to speak. His death not only marks the loss of one man, but also lands a significant blow towards the rapid decline of film criticism itself as a subject of serious writing in the modern age.
Love him or hate him, Ebert has been the most prominent face of American film criticism for over three decades. In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he and the late Gene Siskel began hosting an enormously popular and influential movie review program that aired under several different titles over the years, but is generally known as ‘At the Movies’ or ‘Siskel & Ebert’, until Siskel’s death in 1999. Ebert continued with several other co-hosts until 2006, when his own health problems forced him to stop actively appearing on television. Nevertheless, he never stopped going to or writing about the movies, even through health crises that claimed his speech and half his face.
Whether you agreed with his opinions or not (and frankly, I often did not), Ebert conveyed an all-consuming passion for the movies in his work – and just as importantly, a passion for writing about movies. He had extraordinary wit and loved to play with language, but (unlike many other famous film critics) rarely in the service of condescending to or proving himself smarter than his readers. Ebert genuinely wanted every movie he saw to achieve greatness, and often felt very personally let down when they failed to meet their potential or wasted his time. His coining of the phrase “I HATED, HATED, HATED this movie” became a pop culture touchstone. On the other hand, when he loved a film, his joy in sharing that enthusiasm (as in a series of articles simply titled “The Great Movies”) was infectious.
Personally, I felt that Ebert sometimes missed the mark in very big ways, such as his notoriously scathing review of David Lynch’s masterpiece ‘Blue Velvet‘, and very rarely seemed open to revisiting past opinions to see if his feelings might change over time. In his later years, he was sometimes a pushover for movies of middling value that may not have deserved his praise. Yet his greatest achievement was his ability to keep the practice of film criticism both popular and relevant to readers, even as our culture has steadily devalued thoughtful analysis of the film medium or art in general. While I don’t think that Roger Ebert was America’s greatest film critic, I do believe that he was the most important. Without him, the role of the film critic will lack a charismatic spokesperson to champion its importance.
Just this past Tuesday, Ebert published a note on his blog acknowledging that his cancer had returned, and announcing what he described as “a leave of presense,” in which he planned to reduce his coverage of new movie releases in order to focus on a new internet endeavor called Ebert Digital.
Roger Ebert was 70-years-old at his death on Thursday. His last published movie review was for the Stephenie Meyer alien invasion flick ‘The Host’. He panned it.
So long, Roger. We’ll see you at the movies.