Roger Ebert has died. From 1967 to just two days ago, Ebert was the dominant voice of film criticism, popular and elitist, for the “average” movie goer and for those who practice cinephilia, for print and television. He was urbane and yet carried his Midwestern common sense lightly. He was witty, well-read, and very engaging. He took positions; he argued them; he did it all with a self-effacing touch. Because he had a public persona (on television, for so many years), he made talking about film both intelligent and sexy without his persona getting in the way.
I have read Ebert for more than four decades now; have taken his opinions seriously; have taught him to my students; have tried to emulate his writing; have watched and re-watched with delight his television programs. Just last month, one of the assignments which my students had to do was a Ebert and Siskel sort of presentation about a film of their choice, complete with clips and jokes and banter, if need be. (I had borrowed the idea from a colleague.) Ebert was actually as interesting if not more so when you disagreed with him, for his opinions (and they are opinions, informed by analysis and style) were always the occasion for something larger than the film itself. He saw the deep connection between society at large and film, between talking about the movies and talking. I would go further and say that often, underneath all the charm of the critic and the courage of his views, you could discern the workings of an ethical approach to image-making and to life.
Our generation grew up on the writings of critics like Ebert. We took films seriously. My students don’t know him that well, if at all. That’s sad because his brand of criticism had no tolerance for bad movies, the kind of movies which are dished with such regularity these days. True, times have changed, as have movies and movie going itself, but Ebert made it his mission to make us not be satisfied with the bad stuff. And to do so with a good argument of far-reaching implications.
Ebert’s favorite film was, I am told, La Dolce Vita.
We will all miss him–at the movies, in our conversations about movies. A loss to us all who learned so much from him.