Why Roger Mattered
When legendary film critic Roger Ebert died last week of cancer complications at the age of 70, he left a legacy and impact on his craft that will never be equaled. Many filmgoers knew him as the portly companion of fellow Chicago area film critic Gene Siskel along with the duo’s popular movie review shows that went by various names from 1975 to 1999. Upon Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert worked with a variety of co-hosts, settling in with Richard Roeper until 2008. These shows were unique and pioneered a model of impassioned but respectful debate about current movies that has been copied by countless other programs in a variety of fields. The program’s signature “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” phrase—which Ebert actually trademarked—resonates to this day.
Ebert is the only film critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. He brought both a cerebral approach and a unique populist perspective to film criticism in his weekly columns that spanned five decades. He was that rare critic who could persuade the moviegoer to either see a movie or to avoid it while producing columns that were themselves a delightful form of entertainment. His negative reviews were often deliriously funny. Consider this appraisal of the film “Freddy Got Fingered”:
The film is a vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down.
Ebert seemed to take a special glee in panning movies but truth be told, no one loved good movies more. Colleagues and fellow critics were often astonished at how much joy he found, even in his later, health-challenged years, in going to the movies. His boundless passion and tireless dedication produced successful television shows that were imitated but never duplicated. He wrote a weekly column that was syndicated in over 200 newspapers—far more than any other critic, and authored over 20 books, including a memoir called “Life Itself.” It isn’t a stretch to suggest that no one in the field of pop culture criticism will ascend to such lofty heights again. The same web-based platforms that produce opportunities for countless budding critics have made it almost impossible for those with truly unique skills to make a resounding mark amidst the din of mediocrity.
On a personal note, I can say without hesitation that Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, made me think about movies in new and different ways, prompting me to not simply experience a movie but wonder how and why certain movies made me feel the way they did. I didn’t always agree with his opinion – it wasn’t his goal only to persuade – but I pored over his reviews because I knew there were often great movies out there to be discovered that most people had never seen. You could hear his voice in his writing style – a style that was witty but rarely cynical, casual but highly literate, and personal without self-aggrandizement. He loved film, and that love was evident in every review.