On Roger Ebert

Last week's passing of Roger Ebert hit me a little harder than I would have expected it to. I had to go back and forth between whether or not that came from a genuine sense of loss or merely an interruption in ubiquity (the perilous extrapolation of an eternally curious and inquisitive mind is that one tends to question and evaluate every single feeling or impulse one has) - despite his continual struggles with cancer over the last decade or so, Ebert had remained such a strong, vital presence online and in print that the assumption was that he would be with us for quite a while. Even reading over his "Leave of Presence" post (which I didn't even hear about until after his passing), one gets the impression that even if he was reduced to nothing but a brain and a pair of hands, Ebert's voice would ring out from the depths of the internet for another decade or two at the least.

Sadly, what read just over a week ago as a promise to keep churning in the face of mounting physical limitations now seems to be a declaration of continuing legacy despite his imminent passing. And while I certainly mourn the loss of such a passionate voice from the cinematic discourse, I feel the need to eulogize with equal measure the form which it, along with that of Gene Siskel, helped to bring into the mainstream.

A huge advocate of the cinematic art, and one of the most outspoken champions among his field for the comparable worth of genre and B-pictures to more traditionally highbrow fare, Ebert nonetheless has to be considered as someone who - perhaps inadvertently - lowered the standards of criticism with his influential (and trademarked) "Thumbs Up-Thumbs-Down" approach. Yet "At the Movies," aside from being a staple in many a nascent film-lover's television diet for the last few decades, was also a gateway of sorts, opening up the discussion of cinema's many values beyond the walls of university classes and cine-clubs. Whether his influence was a result of the value of his criticism or the reach that it extended, it is one that is undeniable. I spent my time like most of the rest of us scouring through his archived reviews, both those that appeared in print and on his website and those which are forever enshrined upon YouTube. While I cringe internally whenever anyone tells me that they base their viewing habits solely on the opinions of a single critic, to gravitate towards the leanings of someone like Ebert is to take the first basic steps towards developing your own taste and critical voice, and Siskel and Ebert were a set of training wheels for the last generation of ardent cinephiles. To have a weekly television show devoted explicitly to movie reviews was a means of legitimizing the form and its artistic worth for mainstream audiences, even as the black-and-white dichotomy of the "thumbs" approach was spawning a critical movement more on par with superficial consumer advocacy than entry into a larger, more intellectually adventurous conversation.

Yet much like those who look back at the breakout success of Spielberg's Jaws and hang the death of 70s cinema around its neck without looking back and remembering that Jaws is in fact a great movie that happened to spawn a studio model more keen on following its pattern of success rather than the elements that made it a great movie, it would be a bit disingenuous to look back upon Siskel and Ebert as the horsemen of the critical apocalypse. A literate and witty voice to the end, and a critic who, while forced to give star ratings, always contextualized them as being relative to the individual goals and merits of the particular film he was reviewing, Ebert helped to bridge the gap between high and low-culture approaches to film criticism, and in the wake of his death the discourse will be lowered ever so slightly. Few voices rang out as loudly or as passionately as his, even after being physically silenced.

In fact it may have been in recent years that his worth as a cultural figure truly reached its peak, as his early adoption of the changes that the internet was inflicting upon journalism and his embracing of its evolutionary possibilities via his blog and social media gave him a wider platform from which to expound on the values of the older films he held dear, or to champion the progressive social causes that were so close to his heart. From time to time, he seemed to betray the fact that he was perhaps growing a bit out of touch (his war on video games as an art form seems especially misguided and vindictive, in that he would barely hear any argument to the contrary or cede much in the way of their alternative worth despite his belief). His critical standards became more suspect, his fact checking became more sloppy, and his constant tweeting verged on stultifying, but he nonetheless seemed to be someone whose brush with death led him to truly appreciate and cherish the time he had left on this earth. It is perhaps as a cinematic advocate, rather than as a critic, that he should really be remembered. To read his ever-evolving appreciations of the films he loved most was to share in a collection of insights and ideas that had been developed over a life very fully lived and a deep and resounding relationship with an art form very fully loved.

For posterity's sake, here's a link to Ebert's final ballot for this year's Sight and Sound list.

I also want to link to his review of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, partially because it is indicative of his ability as a critic to be able to appreciate a film for its own merits, but also because it contains one of my favorite paragraphs he ever wrote, one which not only captures but appreciates the blissfully goofy appeal of the film itself but also makes me laugh like a jackass:

It's at about this point that the script conferences must have really taken off. See if you can follow this: The Enterprise crew determines that the probe is zeroing in on Earth, and that if no humpback songs are picked up in response, the planet may well be destroyed. Therefore, the crew's mission becomes clear: Because humpback whales are extinct in the 23rd century, they must journey back through time to the 20th century, obtain some humpback whales, and return with them to the future - thus saving Earth. After they thought up this notion, I hope the writers lit up cigars.

There are few other respected critics that I can imagine ever writing a paragraph that celebratory about something so absurd, but it is to his eternal credit that Ebert, perhaps more than any critic I can think of, was not only willing but always hoping to be surprised by something. It's a sense of unbridled awe and enthusiasm that has unfortunately been replaced in large part by bored cynicism, and hopefully Ebert's death is one that can remind us of what can be achieved in the name of true love and devotion to a medium rather than to snappy headlines or page hits.

- cs