A tribute to Roger Ebert

photo courtesy of rogerebert.com

Micah Osler, news editor

I can’t begin to think how to start this post, so I guess I’ll just begin it with a simple assertion: Roger Ebert is dead, and I’m strangely emotional about it.

The man was brilliant. That much, I can say without a doubt. He was brilliant, and he was brave, and he was forward-thinking. He invested in Google before it was something to invest in; he was a published journalist in a professional publication at age fifteen and was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer not too long after; he responded to the loss of his jaw, an appendage generally considered pretty vital to human activities like speaking and eating things, by scribing a book about food he could eat without a jaw and doubling down on his online writings. He was an inspiration, an innovator, and a genius.

Yet that’s not what hits me about the life he’s no longer living. What digs at me – what makes me grateful that this man lived – is the genuineness and humility that exuded from everything he wrote.

In an obituary of Ebert I saw online, there’s a comment that compares the man to Kurt Vonnegut. There’s no real explanation there, but I felt the connection the author obviously felt. Vonnegut, like Ebert, was a man who made his living through writing, and like Ebert, tried to be as unpretentious and blunt about what he wrote as he could. Like Ebert, Vonnegut seemed to believe in a fundamental decency that pervades humanity, and like Ebert, Vonnegut believed in a vision of the world shaped by that fundamental decency: a world where the genuine and the talented and the hard-working were exalted and the tyrants were stripped of their thrones.

The difference between the two, of course, is that Vonnegut wrote novels about aliens and apocalypses and chrono-synclastic infudibula, whatever those were (it was never really clear), and Ebert wrote reviews of movies. The difference is only on the surface, though. Movies are the most readily-accessible form of storytelling today, and they have been for some time, and thus what’s playing at the movies is probably a microcosm of what we’re thinking as a society. The hard-working were the movies Ebert lifted up high and brought to a larger audience and the tyrants were the Rob Schneiders of the world who tried to disguise a lack of effort as populism, although he would have phrased it better than that, with less haughtiness and in a way that rang truer.

But like Vonnegut, Ebert was incredible in that he could castigate something without losing hope in it. The worst, most cataclysmic, scathing-est reviews always get the most traffic; that’s just the truth. And Ebert could scathe with the best of them – in fact, he probably was the best of them. His most famous quotes are from his worst reviews. What strikes me about them now, though, is how different they are from the awful reviews I see elsewhere. There was always a glimmer of hope in them. He was often upset, disappointed, or downright angry about films that he saw, but somehow his anger never transmuted itself into acerbic hatred. With a few exceptions – the aforementioned Rob Schneider chief amongst them – he commented on the movie itself without resorting to personal attacks of any sort. Perhaps the best way to show why Ebert was unique this way is with a contrast: in a recent review of “Identity Thief” by the much-reviled Rex Reed, more ink is wasted mocking Melissa McCarthy for her weight than commenting on the film’s quality of acting, pacing, or pretty much anything else except plot summary. To be clear, Ebert didn’t like “Identity Thief”, either. But when Ebert hated a movie, he always posited a thesis as to why the movie didn’t work, all the time while lamenting the actors and director and screenwriter who were wasting their talents with such fare. He didn’t stick up for mediocre movies any more than he blithely insulted everyone involved in them. Instead, he told us why they didn’t work, which is, lamentably, a rarity in criticism.

Even better than that was his openness to change. Just because Ebert was the best film critic yet to live doesn’t mean he always got it right the first time around. “Groundhog Day” went, in his estimation, from being a middling three-star comedy to being a cultural touchstone. Everyone does that – re-evaluates a piece of art that matters to them as their life and the pop-culture cycle goes on – but it takes a truly strong and honest person to accept that they were wrong and move on, especially when said person’s views are read by millions across the world.

I guess what I’m trying to hit at here is that Roger Ebert was a man whose writing illuminated and championed, and a man who managed, somehow, to use his power as a critic to enhance an art form instead of stratify its audience. Far too many people write to obfuscate – to make themselves seem smart at the expense of meaning. I am, ashamedly, one of them. I blather on about things that make little sense and throw in a five-syllable word once in a while to try to make myself seem smart, and that truly is the antithesis of how Roger Ebert wrote. He did not write to inflate himself and invoke awe in his readership. Instead, he wrote to make sure that great art was recognized for what it was and that useless art was understood so that it could be avoided in the future and so that the no doubt talented people involved in it could return to making great art.

Mr. Ebert, from an aspiring writer, thank you. You showed me the purpose of criticism, and how great it could be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the movies.