I was listening Thursday as NPR’s Talk of the Nation played host to film buff Murray Horwitz, for a lively and unabashedly film-nerd-friendly discussion on the phenomena of Hollywood prequels, sequels and reboots. And it was just as Horwitz and host Neal Conan had been gushing over The Godfather Part II, itself both prequel and sequel, that word came of the passing of film-critic Roger Ebert.
It was a cruel plot twist in which Ebert would have reveled, but at the cost of a conversation he would have hated to interrupt.
Setting aside any ’90-child nostalgia for the seemingly magical ubiquity of the phrase Gene Siskel and Ebert give to “two thumbs up,” the fact is that popular awareness of film would be much different in the absence of Roger Ebert. And further, that the abundance of movie water cooler discussion, film blogs and podcasts, of Oscar pools and top ten lists can be credited largely to Ebert’s demystification of the medium by being among the first to equip us with the ability to speak and understand its language.
Thumb through the table of contents of Ebert’s The Great Movies and you will find 8 ½, Apocalypse Now and Citizen Kane, alongside the comparatively popcorn fare of Star Wars, E.T. and Bonnie and Clyde. It is an unapologetically wide-ranging palette combining a reverence for the classics and pinnacles of craft, with larger pop cultural sentimentality willing to overlook structural blemishes in return for raw emotionality and imagination. An amalgamation more in line with the likes of J. J. Abrams and Ben Affleck as opposed to Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick, but just look at who is winning the Academy Awards these days for evidence of Ebert’s continued influence on taste.
What I have taken from Ebert personally, and what I hope to see taken to heart by the film world at large, is the enduring freshness and lack of pretension with which he was able to tackle his craft. Thanks to the work of Ebert and others, alongside new technologies and new distribution models, this generation of filmgoers has access to a greater diversity of films and filmmakers than any before. Implicit in that opportunity is the responsibility of continuing Ebert’s efforts to listen.
Roger Ebert said, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.” It is the single best advice for aspiring critics I have ever heard.
He was fair but quirky, kind but opinionated, empathetic and fearless—precisely the sort of character he found so compelling onscreen.
A freelance writer and filmmaker, Chris Ritter is the host of Surreelfilm, a weekly film discussion radio show/podcast aired locally on Crescent Hill Radio.