When Roger Ebert passed away on Thursday, we lost someone who much more than just a film critic. We lost someone who came to embody a love for cinema that encompassed almost every angle of the medium imaginable.
To start with his main occupation, he forever changed what film critics were and what reviews could do. Rather than just going over the plot of a film and critiquing the performances and technical aspects of it, Ebert dug deep into films to find their message and, in many cases, their faults as well. In doing so, he took film criticism to a whole new level.
There was nothing like reading a favorable Roger Ebert review of a good movie. He looked deep into the film for meanings and truths that most people wouldn’t even consider thinking about, but also presented these in a way that respected his reading audience. This was evident in Ebert’s review of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” In his review of the movie he wrote about how it was imperative that the viewer arrive at their own conclusion of what the film’s ultimate message is about race relations. He also showed it in his review of “United 93” by saying that the film does not seek to exploit or draw any conclusions, but rather just observes the events happening. These reviews showed how Ebert became the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
But there was also nothing quite like reading a Roger Ebert review of a film he despised. They were so infamous that he published several books containing these bad reviews. My personal favorite was his pan of Rob Reiner‘s movie, “North” which contained this paragraph: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.” This review became so infamous that at Reiner’s roast at the New York Friar’s Club, Billy Crystal made Reiner read the review out loud to the audience to much laughter.
His status as a film icon stretched to more than just his reviews. Ebert was central to film culture. Ebert had long been a champion of independent movies and was always a central presence at many film festivals including Sundance and Cannes. He even started his own festival in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois in 1998, known as Ebertfest, which centered on films he felt were great but overlooked by the public. Ebert was also a fixture of the Academy Awards, hosting a pre-show and post-show with his former colleague Richard Roeper.
An interesting fact about Ebert’s embrace of film culture came in the form of his annual list of the 10 best movies of each year. Ebert never hid the fact that he did not like yearly top 10 lists (or any movie lists in general), but still provided an annual list of his favorites, as he felt it at least had some importance. His top pick would line up with the Academy eight times over his career: “The Godfather” (1972), “Amadeus” (1984), “Platoon” (1986), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), “Crash” (2005), “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “Argo” (2012).
Ebert’s talents as a writer did not just extend to film. He utilized the internet as a means of publishing his writing before the term blogging had even been coined. He realized the potential the internet held and was an early investor in Google. Through his blogging he discussed his views on politics, religion and his ongoing journey as a recovering alcoholic. His writing became even more central after he lost the ability to speak in 2006. The writings that he would publish on his website along with his film reviews were equal to great essays by Christopher Hitchens, H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut and they even earned him a Webby Award for Person of the Year in 2010.
This has only covered part of Ebert’s distinguished career. It could go on and on about his ventures in screenwriting, television and even dating Oprah Winfrey and encouraging her to go into syndication. But like the way Ebert approached great movies, his life is something that should be dived into and explored. With each revelation about the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s assured that he will be missed all the more.
As he used to say, until next time, I’ll see you at the movies and the balcony is closed.