I was a lost college student when I first read a Roger Ebert article. I had no idea what vocation I wanted to pursue and had little knowledge or appreciation for film. Several paragraphs into his review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and my mind was set: film is interesting, and film journalism even more so.
I credit Roger Ebert for completely changing my attitude through a combination of wonderful syntax and perpetual enthusiasm. People can say what they wish about any form of criticism, that it’s scornful or demeaning, even meaningless, but there’s a reason so many flock to a critic’s words, beyond wanting to know if something tastes, reads or is made well. It is because they care. Ebert cared. This is a man who reviewed a staggering 306 films in a year. Why? Because “[films are] important…they affect the way that people, think, feel and behave.”
I know I am not alone in my admiration. This enthusiasm entertained and influenced many, and as such was why the great and good were mourning his loss when news of his death struck on 4 April. Among those paying tributes were Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, even Barack Obama, as well as respectable organisations and people in his line of work: The A.V. Club, The Onion, Slash Film, New York Times’ A.O. Scott, the UK’s own Mark Kermode, his friend and colleague Richard Roeper. Ebert was undeniably the filmmaker’s critic, the actor’s critic, the critic’s critic. He was everybody’s favourite critic.
Having started his career in film journalism in 1967 at the Chicago Sun-Times (a publication he would write for until his death), Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He would later, in 2005, also become the first to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Arguably, he may have been best known in his native America for his role on TV in the 1980s. His review show with fellow critic Gene Siskel, Siskel & Ebert at the Movies (the quotable and hilarious highlights of which can be found on YouTube), brought film criticism to the masses and played a huge part in his unraveling as one of the greatest, and most revered, populist critics.
In 2002, he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, and in 2003 underwent an operation to remove the disease in his salivary glands, something that robbed him of his voice. Yet, he didn’t give up, and became more prolific in his work, adapting to personal and technological change through the use of online domains and social networking (where his discussions also turned to politics and philosophy). Rather than seeing the internet as the death of criticism, he took it as a way to propel those who previously couldn’t express themselves, and in doing so became a bastion for the unheralded critic.
This is the incarnation I primarily knew, Ebert: the online personality. Others will rightly remember him as far more: the aforementioned TV star, the author, the scriptwriter (he co-wrote 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), the optimist and the humanist, the latter of which is summed up in a beautiful passage from his memoir Life Itself: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
As a writer, Ebert reminded us not to forget ourselves, not to be emotionless, objective fools. His reviews dared to ask: “Who am I? What is this film saying to me? Why do I feel this way?” They were fully aware that films could be, beyond anything, simply personal. “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you”, he once wrote. His words were always passionate, opinionated, insightful, funny and never overtly pretentious (the fact he liked Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties can attest to that).
It is the sign of a great writer when one somehow generates a personality from the flat surface of a piece of paper or a computer screen. Ebert did this in abundance. With his death, we may not just be grieving over the loss of a great man, but the last remnants of individualism in film journalism. It is so easy to question if there will ever be another of his distinct breed again, in this age of multiplicity and diversification, where, as Ebert would approve, anybody can have a voice.
Roger Ebert’s legacy will continue via rogerebert.com, his website containing a catalogue of his written work that only recently has had a redesign, and Ebertfest, his own festival dedicated to promoting overlooked films (which runs between 17 – 21 April every year). But, for me, I will truly miss the excitement of going to his website and gaining his fresh insight on the latest flick.
It is true that I have never met him or even vaguely knew him, but in this social networking age one can feel close to those a million miles away, and he influenced me in ways he’ll never know. So, to this revolutionary, visionary and inspirational film lover, I say thank you.