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Roger Ebert

I’ve been away for a while, with personal stuff, so this is quite late. Which is probably for the best, as I don’t think I can really say too much about Ebert that hasn’t already been said by so many more eloquent individuals all around the internet.

Roger Ebert meant a lot to me. It’s no real exaggeration to suggest that he was the first real American film critic that I noticed. Obviously, I grew up with British and Irish film critics on television and radio. I was fond of (and am still fond of) Barry Norman, Jonathan Ross, Mark Kermode and Dave Fanning among others. However, Ebert was the first American film critic who really resonated with me.

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Growing up in Ireland, I obviously never grew up with the institution of Siskle and Ebert at the Movies, like so many of my American readers or followers. Instead, my connection to Ebert was mostly through on-line reading and discussion. Ebert was a pioneer in that regard. He used the internet to find a voice after illness hindered his ability to continue to host on television, but he established an on-line presence long before that.

His name is at the top of quite a few “external reviews” sections on The Internet Movie Database. His reviews were archived lovingly by The Chicago Sun-Times. He maintained an active website even before cancer began to eat away at him. His illness pushed him to further innovate and engage when it came to on-line film criticism and discussion, maintaining a twitter feed that would make most tech-happy teenagers envious. Indeed, Ebert’s twitter feed could be far more verbose and informed than quite a few film blogs, this one included.

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However, that was just one fascinating side to a multi-faceted man. I love Ebert’s writing, because it taught me something that I cherish about film criticism. Ebert was really the defining figure in American film criticism, bring criticism to the masses in a way that accessible and engaging. Although this is hardly the time to get into that discussion, Ebert attracted quite a fair bit of derision for fostering “a reductive form of criticism” through his simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down verdict.

This isn’t the time for a criticism or defence of Ebert, but it’s something I feel I have to mention, because that cuts to the heart of what I loved about his writing and his criticism. I won’t pretend that I always agreed with Ebert when it came to his opinion on film, but that’s precisely the point. Those people who argued that Ebert might be getting too soft (or too generous) in his old age were missing the point.

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The point wasn’t the thumbs up or the thumbs down. That was never what I got from Ebert, and it was just a means to an end. It’s a handy way of summing up his opinion on a film, not a concrete empirical fact. Even Ebert himself conceded that any rating system is entirely subjective and should not be treated as absolute:

In connection with my affinity for genres, in the early days of my career I said I rated a movie according to its “generic expectations,” whatever that meant. It might translate like this: “The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose.”

That’s kind of the most important lesson I learnt from Ebert, that comparing movies isn’t a one-for-one transaction.

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It sounds so simple. And, to be fair, it is now. But I was young when I started reading Ebert, and I believed in absolute certainties. Films were objectively and completely good or bad, and my assessment of them would have been absolute. Demolition Man was absolutely a better film than Saving Private Ryan, if for no other reason than I liked it more. And I still like it. And I’ll still defend it. But I’ll accept that comparing it to Saving Private Ryan is like comparing apples to oranges.

More than that, assigning a movie into a binary “good or bad” rating (or even a ten-point four-star scale) is just a way to start a conversation. The real beauty of Ebert wasn’t in the thumbs up or the thumbs down, but in his prose. Ebert loved film, and he saw films a particular way. Was it the way that I saw films? Sometimes it was, but sometimes it wasn’t. I suspect that’s true of a lot of people. Taste is subjective, and all we can really do is offer some insight into a film, to offer our own observations and opinions in the hope that they might be of use to somebody somewhere. Or it might spark a conversation.

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The most rewarding film-related conversations I have ever had have come from talking not to people who agree with me, but with people who disagree with me. And I think, reading Ebert, he understood that. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t pan a film, and pan mercilessly. Ebert’s bad reviews were a work of art, but not just because they made his objections to the film clear. They captured the essence of Ebert’s emotional and visceral response. You felt it when Ebert really let rip.

His reviews weren’t scientific proofs of absolute and indisputable truths, they were arguments. It was up to the reader to decide how convincing they were, and they were generally quite shrewd. Sometimes they came from an intellectual place, or an artistic place, and sometimes they just came from deep inside Ebert’s bones. Ebert knew that he wasn’t divining truth so much as stating a case, and I really liked that about him.

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Maybe that’s what I was trying to get at when I talked about the way Ebert courted the internet at the start of this admittedly wandering piece. He embraced the idea that film criticism was about debate and discussion as much as it was about lecturing. Ebert reached out. The internet, with his large pool of “far-flung correspondents”, was just the most obvious example. Ebert taught a love of film, but in a manner that encouraged and fostered debate. He would lecture in cinema, pausing the film to spark audience discussion. He would organise festivals and get-togethers for film lovers to celebrate the art form.

Ebert demonstrated that film was a communal art form, one that belonged to everybody, one that was accessible to pretty much everyone. It wasn’t about being “right” or “wrong” about a film, it was about fostering an atmosphere of discussion, about engaging with that art. I think it’s fair to say that, without Ebert, I wouldn’t be writing this.

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Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert.

One Response

  1. I almost felt gutted when I heard he’d passed away. As an avid lover of movies and a semi-aspiring film critic, I’d always looked up to him as the person to go to for film reviews. He did so much for the world of film critics and was second to none. It’s sad to realise an icon has passed away, and he will be sorely missed in the world of film.

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