Anyone who has written a film review in the last 30 or so years owes a lot to Roger Ebert, who died today at age 70, just one day after announcing his cancer had returned. Ebert was the first person to win a Pulitzer for film reviews and popularized film criticism in a way no one else can lay claim to. Whether in his 46 years reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times, any of his various TV shows, his blog or even his Twitter account, Ebert brought both humor and a sense of importance to film review that few others could ever match.
I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I was never a huge Ebert fan growing up. Movies were so important and personal to me that I could barely bring myself to read reviews of any kind. My local movie reviewer, Lawrence Toppman, was/is a superb writer but I would get so angry reading his reviews. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate movie criticism as a (very difficult) art form, and I even wrote him a letter apologizing for all of the horrible things I called him in my head. He never answered it, though.
I was of course familiar with Ebert, between his TV shows and the famous “Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down” rating system, but since we had our own reviewer in our local paper we never got his syndicated reviews. As an adult, I began reading some of his reviews, especially when looking for inspiration for my own reviews or a second opinion on something I was still digesting. His writing was often hilarious, and he thrived on negative criticism as much as Anton Ego in Ratatouille, but something about his review style never greatly appealed to me. I always felt (and this is where Toppman was so brilliant) that a reviewer’s job was not only to offer their opinion, but to help inform the reader as to whether or not they would like the film. As an adult, I still often disagree with Toppman, but the way he writes has always given me a perfect indication of how I will most likely receive the movie.
But I’ve come to respect Ebert for doing something different. He always presented his opinions as truth, never as merely one man’s opinion. He was never afraid to say that a movie was categorically bad or good, no matter who might disagree. It’s a position that I feel a much stronger connection with now than I have in the past, as I find myself more inclined to defend movies that I like despite common opinion and criticize things that are popular.
It’s impossible not to admire him for the grace with which he handled his cancer diagnosis, treatment and aftermath, which robbed him of lower jaw and his ability to speak and eat. He took to Twitter as if it had been made for him, and it gave him a new voice, one that he wasn’t afraid to share. He hated 3D with a passion, complaining about the gimmicky aspect of it, how uncomfortable the glasses are, and how dark it makes the image. His views on how videogames are not art gained him many enemies among the gamer communities.
Most of all, what I admired about Ebert was his love of movies. Despite seeing countless horrible films (and many more mediocre ones, such as last week’s The Host), his passion for film never wavered. He enjoyed movies of all types, from blockbuster action films to the forgotten indies he loved to champion. He’s almost solely responsible for the importance of My Dinner with Andre, a film which I completely adore. He understood that movies can be fun and entertaining, but they’re also important and should be treated as such. The importance of film as an artform accounted for the pleasure he took in obliterating a horrible film and the joy he shared on finding diamond in the rough. If there’s one lesson that I hope I can learn from his example, it’s that this thing that I love has value, and that’s why having standards and opinions is so important. He forever changed the art of film criticism, and as a result helped change film itself, and I for one will miss him.