Culture

Reviewing the Life and Work of Roger Ebert: Critic, Populist, Humanist

It’s hard to keep the passion alive in any long-term marriage. But for nearly half a century, Roger Ebert inhabited the honeymoon phase of his relationship with movies and reviewing itself. Whether he was assessing the merits of the latest "Transformers" spectacle or Terrence Malick masterpiece (poetically, the latter’s “To the Wonder” will run as his culminating review), Ebert’s reviews glistened with the boyish zeal (and serious-mindedness) of an intern who had been given his first shot at a national byline.

But what distinguished Ebert from his peers, both personally and professionally, was the selfless humanity that informed his critical sensibility as well as his commitment to championing the underdog. He routinely went above and beyond the call of duty to draw attention to independent films that might otherwise go overlooked by publishing rhapsodic reviews, forging ongoing friendships with the filmmakers, and genuinely investing himself in their creative progression. Writer-director Allison Anders was one such beneficiary of Ebert’s devotion. He was an avid proponent of her sixth film, “Sugar Town,” an omnibus look at the lives of fading rockers, and his unqualified rave at Sundance supercharged the film’s commercial prospects. Even more poignantly, Ebert stayed in touch with Anders, who had recently moved to London, and sent her his book, The Perfect London Walk, with the inscription, “For Allison, Sugar Walk, Roger.”

This was more than just a thoughtful gesture. It exemplifies Ebert’s constitutional immunity to become just another bitter and jaded critic. It’s hard to imagine another highly influential media figure taking time out from handicapping the next season’s hits and misses taking the time to share an appreciation for the unplugged pleasure of experiencing a city by foot. And it’s that very impulse – to share his delight or dismay – that made him such an effective and accessible reviewer.

Ever since the “At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert” hit the airwaves in 1986, encapsulating a film’s merits with a thumbs-up or -down, Ebert was always considered the more populist of the two critics. But that assessment makes the common mistake of confusing Ebert’s clearheaded reasoning and commitment to judging each film on its own merits rather than its preordained status as a work of great cinema with anything but. Ebert didn't distinguish between important movies and commercial dreck. All he cared about was whether the filmmaker achieved what he or she set out to do. It's that approach that made him such a reliable barometer for films to fit any mood or demographic.

But among his most inspiring and lasting legacies is his perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. When cancer robbed him of his voice and his jaw, he leveraged social media and blogging tools to become an even more vocal presence in the film community. Likewise, when most critics were posting eulogies to the dying art of movie reviewing, Ebert published a provocative essay arguing that the web has democratized the form and given a platform to diverse young voices who might have never been heard otherwise. Ebert was a free-thinking iconoclast who cherished life’s gifts (cinematic or otherwise) more than most while enduring everything else with uncommon grace. Though he will be dearly missed by moviemakers and -lovers alike, he has set an example of selfless passion for movies that’s already been passed down to the many young critics he’s mentored along the way.

  • “Passamaquoddy Bay”

    I actually took some different information from this. It's awesome that you took the time to do all this. I once more discover myself personally using up a significant amount of time both reading and/or commenting. Absolutely worth the time, regardless.

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