“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
You might think of film criticism as frivolous. If you write it for a living or for a hobby, you know it can feel that way. It’s like that old Vonnegut quote: the critic puts on a full suit of armour to attack a hot fudge sundae. There are times when I feel that the effort isn’t worth the result, that expending so much time and energy on thinking and talking and writing about movies has no real consequence or gravity. It’s hard to think that film criticism could help anybody or make anybody happy. But Roger Ebert did something to make others more than a little happier: he wrote with generosity and courage, with openness and conviction, with intelligence and wit, and those who read him weekly or monthly or once in a blue moon were thus entertained, informed, moved. We disagreed with him. We were convinced by him. We made “two thumbs up” the definitive shorthand for judging a movie. Roger Ebert, frankly, was an inspiration, and I know that I am not the only professional film critic who can say with absolute certainty that I would not be one if it weren’t for this one great man, this incredible, singular voice.
He would have resented the cliche, but as a film critic Ebert really did age like wine. His writing only began to pique when he reached his mid-60s, after decades of weekly reviews on-air and in print. After surgical complications strained his already ailing health in 2006, Ebert stepped down from his hosting duties on At The Movies, the long-running television series that certified his fame, and for a little while it seemed like the end of an era. An aging critic’s career was winding down, as they often do; I’d been reading him weekly since early high school, never missing a new review, and this felt like a ritual drawing to a close. I doubt anybody expected what happened next: instead of retiring, Ebert wrote more. And better—it was a kind of critical second wind, restoring a critic stuck in a routine to the height of his powers and beyond. From the middle of 2006 to the beginning of 2013, Roger Ebert wrote as if in the midst of a personal renaissance, expanding his purview from the weekly review grind to a blog about food, illness, nightlife, politics, architecture, and life. His reviews got longer. His tone grew lighter. He joined Twitter, interacting with his audience and feeding off their enthusiasm. Forty years of writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and a decade on air with At The Movies made Roger Ebert the world’s most famous film critic. Six years online made him the world’s best.
I became an Ebert fan the same way I imagine most people my age did, catching stray episodes of Siskel & Ebert. It was a pop culture phenomenon, but in retrospect it seems incredible that it ever existed: two smart, not especially camera-friendly film critics got to argue about movies on national television. It’s easy now to admonish the show for its lack of rigor—the format had them discussing films in two or three minute chunks, which made it tough to dig deep—but the very nature of the show was radical, introducing literally millions of Americans to the idea that the cinema could be talked about with seriousness and, more importantly, fervor. Siskel & Ebert wasn’t a spot of afternoon tea with a PBS pre-show: it was a genuine argument, a forum for impassioned debate which proved that movies were worth fighting for, were worth getting mad about. And this was just one of many things Ebert helped do for the cinema.
It’s hard to take stock of a career that long and fruitful. How can we best remember him, best honor his seemingly limitless contributions to the world of film criticism—or to the world of film, for that matter? Within minutes of the news of Ebert’s death breaking, Twitter was alight with memorial messages; dozens upon dozens of film critics both amateur and professional declared, quite candidly, that they would not be writing if it weren’t for Ebert. Perhaps they—we, really—are Ebert’s legacy, or a small part of it, carrying his words and thoughts and insights forward with us as we watch and think and write in turn. It’s our obligation to adopt Ebert’s spirit of integrity and empathy for ourselves, then, and to always remember to write in keeping with how we feel. One of the best qualities of his writing—there are many, of course—was that it always seemed as interested in life itself as it did the film towards which it was directed. When he lost the ability to eat and speak, he became more acutely aware of the pleasures he no longer had access to, and his personal writing on such subjects from this period is as essential, if not more so, than any of his writing on film. That was what defined Ebert more than anything: he wasn’t just a movie expert—he was a life expert. We should all be so lucky.