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.
God (or Santa or whatever; not a religious point) must have gotten tired debating
Siskel about the movies. So Ebert is now back together with Siskel up in the
Such a legend. Even Belgian posters regularly featured the famous ‘Two Thumbs Up!’ quote. His death must have surprised him too, otherwise he wouldn’t have written about ‘a leave’.
Too bad the last movie he saw (or reviewed) was a bad one.
I remember his bashing of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. After his first battle with cancer, Rob Schneider sent him a bouquet of flowers with a card saying “from your least favorite actor”.
According to his editor, Jim Emerson, the last movie he saw and reviewed was Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’ which he really liked.
The review just hasn’t been posted yet.
I’ve often enjoyed reading his reviews, even when completely disagreeing with them (which was at least 50% of the time!). But at least you could usually see where he was coming from, unlike a lot of reviewers. He also wasn’t afraid to admit to liking a film despite it being considered bad or terrible, in the same way many of us enjoy B movies everyone else thinks are rubbish. 😉
It’s a real shame, but at least he spent his life doing what he appeared to love most. How many of us can honestly say that?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading his reviews, and even his blog. He was clearly a very astute and smart man who had honed his writing style and ability over the course of many years.
He’d not only seen, but EXPERIENCED some of the most memorable films ever made! Just thinking of what it was like to be at the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey, not knowing what to think or what this film would become… so cool!! He even allowed himself to re-visit certain films and rate them based on how they had affected him over time. Some movies were rated more highly after they had time to sink in and be re-watched.
Many times I would reread his Great Movies reviews or the reviews of movies I really liked. It was as if I was having a conversation with him and we discussed what we liked about that movie.
While he became somewhat hypocritical in his later years, being too lenient on certain films that deserved ribbing, or allowing his political slant affect his review of certain movies, I still read each new review eagerly.
The world has lost a great voice. Rest In Peace, Mr. Ebert.
Boy, Josh, you hit the nail on the head with why so many of us loved Roger. He was by far the best writer among his fellow critics, but he never felt the need to condescend to his readers OR to the actors/directors/writers/producers of the movies he was reviewing. Yes, he’d be critical of their work, but he wouldn’t delve into personal attacks just because he hated a film. He also never tried to talk “above” his readers (the true mark of a great writer). Using fancy language doesn’t (necessarily) mean you know how to write…it often means you’re just a pretentious show-off.
I credit Roger (and Gene Siskel as well) for both the reason I love writing and, more importantly, the reason I love writing about movies.
very rarely seemed open to revisiting past opinions to see if his feelings might change over time.
Considering how many movies he had to review, the fact that he wrote, and up until 2006, hosted a television show as well, plus other endevors and projects he was working on, and with dealing with cancer, I am sure this did not leave much time to revisit movies.
You have been a movie reviewer for a while. Let’s say you had to review 3-5 movies a week (seems to be about right). Now, this isn’t sitting down on your counch in your living room popping a disc in, this is going down to the theater for a press screening. Then you got to write your review. Then, once a week, you go into the television studio, probably a full 8 hour day, to get the script together, makeup, lighting, get wired for sound, then actually film the show. I volunteer in television production and stage performances, a single hour long performance is an all day event for everyone involved.
So, already, you are talking about someone working 40-50 hour weeks. Now, someone wants you to go back and rewatch a movie you didn’t like the first time and write a whole new review for it?
I may not be a reviewer, but it sounds like he already had a full plate, so I can see why there would be some reluctance to revisit movies.
Finally, got around to watching Life Itself. Thumbs up.
Also noticed that it’s been 6 months since a R.I.P.s been
written. Is that good fortune, Josh?
I burned out on writing obituaries. Too depressing. Not saying I won’t do it again, but I have neglected to write about some notable deaths I probably should have. Leonard Nimoy was a big one.
just listen to my sound reasoning on matters like Interstellar,
and there will be more time for RIPs. 🙂
Seriously, the RIPs are good for the community here. Keep
writing them. Cathartic and connecting to the readers.