“Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1997, 16 years before he would watch his last film. The famous critic and public figure passed away two years ago this past Saturday, April 4. As memories of Ebert slide into the past, we find ourselves devising new ways of remembering and commemorating the critic.
Steve James’s documentary on Ebert, Life Itself (which takes its title, but not necessarily its content, from Ebert’s memoir), is now widely available on online streaming services. The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) plans to build a film center in his name. His website, RogerEbert.com, publishes scores of reviews, thinkpieces, and blog posts by critics from all over the world each week and compiles his past writings on film. His film festival, Ebertfest in Champaign, IL, will begin its 17th year this April with a program that includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage, and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood.
Ebert was a figure who in many ways reflected the extreme complications of the American film world. His writing combined entertainment, intellectualism, art, business, and marketing. Movies, or so they are mythologized, are the art of the masses. And as such, Ebert was a critic for them. He turned out his reviews with a fierce reliability and wrote in a newspaper style free of jargon and technical terms, addressing the people in a way that was widely accessible. He spoke of the way films affected him, and the ways in which he thought they could affect others. At the center of Ebert’s approach to film was the belief that everyone should be able to “get” a good movie.
As shown in James’s documentary Life Itself, Ebert’s rise to becoming essentially the voice and face of not just American film criticism, but the American film world, was full of accidents. Ebert started as a features writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and was named its film critic in a period when film criticism was not widespread in newspapers; at the Chicago Tribune, for instance, reviews were written by any number of different writers and then all published under the pseudonym Mae Tinee (matinee).
Ebert, who had been editor-in-chief of the Daily Illini, the newspaper at UIUC that published five days a week and often included Ebert’s own feature stories and political commentary, set to work on reviewing with the mindset of a journalist. He churned out review after review, hitting deadlines and travelling to interview directors, actors, and producers and to cover film festivals.
As the film Life Itself argues, Ebert saw himself as a kind of Chicago guy, a la Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, or Saul Bellow; someone successful enough in their field to head for the coasts who instead decides to stick it out in the Windy City. His decision to stay was part of the reason Ebert was able to become such a popular figure. He wasn’t an academic from the East Coast or an insider from Hollywood, and therefore he was one of us, someone we could trust, who had our backs and wrote from the point of view of the audience member in towns across America, not the director or the film studies professor.
At the same time, Ebert’s criticism exuded a wily intellectualism and strength of argument straight out of an academic journal. At a certain level, he didn’t care about those people who went to the movies to escape.
“What does it mean to love the movies?” Ebert asks in an introduction to Awake in the Dark, a collection of his work. “It does not mean to sit mindlessly and blissfully before the screen. It means to believe, first of all, that they are worth the time.”
Throughout Ebert’s later years and around his death, debate flew constantly about the end of some aspect of the movies. Existential fear exploded around the switch from celluloid to digital, concretized in Godfrey Cheshire’s 1999 “Death of Film” and “Decay of Cinema.” Worries about film reviewing in general were articulated by Richard Corliss in “All Thumbs, or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” in 1990, and when Ebert himself passed in 2013, many American film-lovers registered with a sigh that there would probably—no, definitely—never ever ever be another critic like Roger Ebert. Ever.
And they were probably right. Yet, it’s a bad habit humans have to predict the end times, to believe that the time they live in now is in some way worse than all the others that came before. That things are only heading down.
“When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes,” Ebert wrote in 1992.
“Then you see something absolutely marvelous,” he adds. “and on your way home...you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision”
There will never be another Roger Ebert—the time and place and culture which allowed his persona to exist and thrive are now gone. Yet each day seems to welcome a new film critic to the fold.Lively debates crackle across the Internet, and if this university is any indicator, film studies as an academic endeavor is gaining more and more popularity. A multiplicity of voices are crying out, championing their own views on films, on film criticism, and on Roger Ebert. Unlike Ebert, many struggle to be heard, but like him, what they share is the belief that films should be taken seriously; that, in Ebert’s own words, “it is not important to have a ‘good time,’ but it is very important not to have your time wasted.” And that is something worth holding onto.