Three days ago Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times film critic for 46 years, announced he had decided to only write about films he chose to review. Battling cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, Ebert had been unable to eat, talk or move his mouth for nearly six years. His jaw drooped comically towards the ground, hung in a permanent smile.
In 2012 Ebert achieved a personal record, reviewing 306 features. Fate got in the way of his plans to be more discerning about what he would watch and write about. Ebert, described by Forbes as “the most powerful pundit in America”, has passed away. He was 70.
There are already countless obituaries and thought pieces (no doubt many more to come) reflecting on the impact of his life and career by the many people inspired by him.
The intention of this blog post is not to join the fold. Instead I want to briefly consider the gripe most commonly associated with Ebert’s work. Every critic has their detractors; every style of writing its vices.
Ebert’s approach to film analysis was conventional but thoughtful, and like every critic worth their weight in battered keyboards he could pile on the snark.
David Lynch’s cult classic Lost Highway got two thumbs down. George Lucas was inept at writing love scenes: “greeting cards have expressed more passion.” Ebert had “seen audits that were more thrilling” than Crocodile Dundee II.
But a regular complaint about Ebert’s reviews, written in a clean-cut style with generous portions of plot description, was that he simply liked too many movies. Visit his website (crashed from server overload at the time of publishing) and you’ll see clear evidence of a critic who gave the vast majority of the things he saw a pretty positive appraisal.
And if Ebert’s main “crime” was that he loved movies too much, every film critic in the world has another reason to feel indebted to him. Ebert brought more than just a passion for film analysis to the masses. He brought a passion for movie loving.
The veteran critic will mean many things to many people. Esquire’s 2010 profile of him is a portrait of a deeply humane man determined to remain a voice despite being unable to speak.
For film critics, perhaps Ebert’s passion for cinema can serve as a reminder that it is always OK to love, like or enjoy a film no matter what it is or what anybody else says. If you loved Movie 43, the common logic goes, you might have some explaining to do — but it is never a crime to think the best of something or find merit where others have not.
It isn’t difficult to write about the artistic merits of a black and white experimental Scandinavian film entrenched in death in despair. It’s harder to explain why GI Joe: Retaliation is a wickedly dark commentary on American political culture.
Roger Ebert will be missed.