Roger Ebert died yesterday, just days after announcing his “leave of presence” from his post as film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times in order to fight the cancer that had returned. He was the best movie reviewer in the business, or at least the most beloved. His reviews were always the first, and often only, reviews I read before seeing a movie, and many times I returned to the review afterwards to help me process what I had just seen. I am sad to think of going to a movie without a Rogert Ebert review to read.
His legend is well-known: he never formally studied film, he was the first critic to win a Pulitzer and to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he wrote a cookbook of recipes for the rice cooker after he had his jaw removed and could no longer eat solid food. There are hundreds of beautiful obituaries and essays out there today–go read a few. The beauty of his life and career could never be contained in once piece, and I’m certainly not going to try.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Roger Ebert is that, though he sat through who-knows-how-many movies in his forty-plus-year career, he never grew jaded. In response to his TV cohost Gene Siskel’s accusation that he tends to go too easy on “cheap exploitative schlock,” he said, “I also have the greatest respect for you, Gene, but if you have a flaw, it is that you are parsimonious with your enjoyment, parceling it out as if you are afraid you will prematurely expend your lifetime share.” He enthusiastically loved movies, and he had a unique ability to write about his passion for movies within the genre of film criticism.
His reviews were masterpieces themselves. Here are just a few of his best.
He understood that different movies have different goals, and judged them accordingly. On “Jurassic Park“: “Because the movie delivers on the bottom line, I’m giving it three stars. You want great dinosaurs, you got great dinosaurs.”
He recognized the role of personal taste, and did not apologize for his own. On “Kick-Ass“: “Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find Kick-Ass morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let’s say you’re a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in.”
He was not afraid to let loose on movies he hated. On “North“: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
He wrote creative, moving prose that expounded not just on movies but on life. On “E.T.”: “Dear Raven and Emil: Sunday we sat on the big green couch and watched “E.T.–The Extra-Terrestrial” together with your mommy and daddy. It was the first time either of you had seen it, although you knew a little of what to expect because we took the ”E.T.” ride together at the Universal tour. I had seen the movie lots of times since it came out in 1982, so I kept one eye on the screen and the other on the two of you. I wanted to see how a boy on his fourth birthday, and a girl who had just turned 7 a week ago, would respond to the movie. Well, it “worked” for both of you, as we say in Grandpa Roger’s business.”
He could even have a prophetic voice, playing the role of not just movie critic but of cultural critic. On “Do the Right Thing“: “Leaving the theater after the tumultuous world premiere of Do the Right Thing at Cannes in May of 1989, I found myself too shaken to speak, and I avoided the clusters of people where arguments were already heating up. One American critic was so angry she chased me to the exit to inform me, “This film is a call to racial violence!” I thought not. I thought it was a call to empathy, which of all human qualities is the one this past century seemed most to need.”
He got right to the heart of what makes a movie tick. On “Pulp Fiction“: “Quentin Tarantino is the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking. … Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one: Like Edward D. Wood Jr., proclaimed the Worst Director of All Time, he’s in love with every shot – intoxicated with the very act of making a movie. It’s that very lack of caution and introspection that makes “Pulp Fiction” crackle like an ozone generator: Here’s a director who’s been let loose inside the toy store, and wants to play all night.”
And he truly appreciated the power of movies to change us. On “Hoop Dreams“: “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
As so many essays have noted, he ended his final blog post with this: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” Thanks for meeting us at the movies all these years, Roger. You will be missed.