Roger Ebert died today.
I was never a big Ebert guy; I always preferred Pauline Kael and, later, J. Hoberman. But Ebert easily won my respect, especially in the last few years. Since this site is about reviewing movies, Ebert is relevant to me by definition.
I can remember watching Sneak Previews on PBS starting when I was about 11 — it was the only TV show around that actually reviewed movies, and that was always very enthralling to me. For some reason I always remember Siskel and Ebert reviewing this talky Jon Voight movie Table for Five as the kind of thing nobody else on TV was interested in doing. I think I preferred Siskel somewhat, but I liked them both. I liked it when they agreed, and I liked it when they disagreed. I appreciated that you could watch, on TV, two men who were clearly experts in their field engaging in an impassioned debate about their area of expertise. The ratio of substance to bullshit was always pleasingly high — and not always easy to find on TV, then or now.
Ebert’s reviews have the great virtue of being to the point, unfussy, clear, and engaging. Ebert understood his own preferences so deeply that he didn’t have to re-set the parameters with every review, he could just talk directly about the movie. His obvious passion and common sense won him a nation full of fans — he’s the only movie reviewer I can think of who transcended the category of movie nuts or whatever you’d call them, cinéastes. Everyone likes Roger Ebert, and for good reason.
In the last few years he had a lot of health problems, it was necessary to remove his jaw surgically, and it was around this time that Ebert became something quite different than merely a very popular and admired movie critic; he became something much closer to a folk hero. Watching him refuse to hide himself away because of his disfigured appearance — and then take up the project of writing recipe books! — was very inspiring.
The most interesting thing about Ebert is that he was a kind of model from a past generation for the younger nerds who run the world nowadays. Today, everyone’s a nerd, and everyone’s proud of it; Comic-Con (I’m told) is overrun by people who in any other time period would be unlikely to wear their scurrilous obsessions on their sleeves so easily. In any case, when you think of Ebert, I think you can see, as far back as the 1970s, a man who found employment and a wide audience through his unglamorous obsession with movies, and who would never think of wavering from that obsession — this is the template of the nerd, and you could see it in his horn-rimmed glasses, his unfashionable attire, and so forth. In a way I don’t think it was a coincidence that he emerged as this exceptionally heroic figure around 2005 — the public had caught up with him; he had found a new generation of nerds who now revered him as an elder.
To me, that’s Ebert’s most lasting contribution. Lots of people can review movies well, that’s not so special — not everyone can communicate a new way of being and then win widespread applause for it. To me, Ebert symbolizes a certain healthy pride of self, an impatience with people who would have him change or cower or apologize, that I find utterly inspiring and admirable. I will miss him.