By James Tweedie
The legendary film critic Roger Ebert passed away last Thursday at the age of 70, after a recurrence of cancer.
Ebert’s career in journalism spanned almost six decades, beginning when he was named the first movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. By 1975 he was a nationally recognized critic and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He also co-hosted a long-running television program–known first, in 1975, as Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, then Sneak Previews, then Siskel and Ebert At the Movies–that introduced him to a much broader audience and confirmed his status as one of the most celebrated American film critics, a distinction he shared with his on-air partner, Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, and a handful of others. Much as he adapted the craft of criticism to television, Ebert later embraced Internet publishing, blogs, Twitter, and the younger generation of readers who encountered his reviews through digital and social media. Although his health had deteriorated in recent years, Ebert’s final blog post emphasized he had published more articles in 2012 than in any previous year (a total of 306 reviews, along with multiple blog posts and other essays each week).
Ebert was famous (and infamous) for subjecting trashy movies to the trash talk they deserved, and he later published a collection of his most negative reviews with the telling title (a quote from Ebert himself): I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie. Ebert adopted an elevated tone when the film warranted a more complex analysis, though his persona and taste were usually more populist. In the best of his exchanges with Siskel, the critics alternated between one mode of talking about cinema (as entertainment, as popular culture, as commercial exploitation) and the other (as art, as an engagement with profound ideas and social problems visible on the screen). That flexibility is rare in critics focused on any medium and especially cinema, and Ebert’s success was due in large part to his ability and willingness to approach films with a seriousness commensurate with their ambition.
One explanation for the success of his television programs, a success that no show with a similar format has come close to matching, was their combination of entertaining and opinionated film reviews with a glimpse at the odd-couple friendship between Siskel and Ebert.
Anticipating the reality TV craze that began in the 1990s, At the Movies displayed the frequent clashes of cinematic taste and sensibility between two otherwise close friends, and in retrospect it reveals the limitations of subsequent programs that have foregrounded either personalities or content without finding an ideal balance between the two. Siskel and Ebert managed to highlight the best and worst qualities of the films they reviewed while also making the audience care about and identify with the critics (or, perhaps, to identify with one or the other and cherish their rivalry and the thrill of the debate). While some lamented the program’s reduction of criticism to a simple verdict–“thumbs up” or “thumbs down”–the program was not a direct translation of long-form journalism into television but a unique combination of personality-driven reality TV and informed observations about art and culture. That genre has been difficult to revive after Ebert’s retirement from the small screen.
One other legacy worth emphasizing is the dignity Ebert displayed during his struggle against cancer. When surgery on his jaw made it impossible to speak, eat, or drink, Ebert continued to participate in the fullest range of professional activities that his condition would permit. Aside from the frequent reviews and other writing, he founded a film festival and maintained a vigorous schedule of public appearances. Ebert wrote frequently about his battle with cancer and managed the deterioration of his health with a grace that one encounters only in the most profound movies, the films whose images never quite fade away and whose lessons remain with us long after the end.
18 June 1942 – 4 April 2013
James Tweedie is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and a member of the Cinema Studies faculty at the University of Washington. He is the author of the upcoming The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization.
Image credit: PARK CITY, UT – JANUARY 17: (FILE PHOTO) Film critic Roger Ebert is photographed on Main Street during the 2003 Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2003 in Park City, Utah. Film critic Roger Ebert, 61, will undergo radiation treatment for cancer later this month for a cancerous tumor in Ebert’s salivary gland reported August 6, 2003. (Photo by Frazer Harrison) EdStock, iStockphoto