The worlds of cinema and journalism received some terrible news yesterday. Roger Ebert, the most influential film critic ever to have lived, has died at the age of 70 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
No-one loved cinema as much as Ebert and, as he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1975), it’s clear that no-one wrote about cinema like he could. An Ebert review could always be identified by its unique style, humour and reverence for the medium.
There is no doubt that he will be sorely missed. I’ve been trying to gather my feelings enough to pen a tribute to the great man and I think I’ve just about managed it.
For me, an aspiring film critic, Roger Ebert was nothing short of an inspiration. After almost 50 years in the profession and losing the power of speech due to surgical complications in 2006, Ebert was still watching and reviewing hundreds of films every year at the time of his death. That level of commitment shows a love for the art form and a level of dedication that few can claim to replicate.
Only this week, he announced that he would be taking a step back from full-time criticism and only reviewing the films about which he specifically wanted to write. The enthusiasm in his words as he spoke of his new Ebert Digital project and the continued work of the Ebertfest film event now serves as a poignant reminder of one of cinema’s greatest journalists. Film was his life until the end.
Upon hearing the news through my film-centric Twitter account, I immediately went to Facebook to see what my more personal friends to had to say. There was nothing. On my entire Facebook feed, there was not a single mention of the passing of film’s greatest reviewer. To my friends, at least, Roger Ebert never existed. And that’s the saddest thing of all. According to Barack Obama, “Roger was the movies,” and yet for some, he was never even a part of them.
Along with the BBC’s Mark Kermode, Roger Ebert was always my first port of call when deciding whether a film was worth seeing. His beautifully written reviews were full, not only of praise and scorn, but also remarkable wit. He described Battlefield Earth as “like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.”
Writing like that rises above the dark pit in which some criticism resides. Ebert never pandered to the studios or to film makers, calling films exactly as he saw them.
His influence spread across every corner of film criticism. Through his television work with broadcasting buddy and verbal sparring partner Gene Siskel, Ebert convinced the world that film reviews had a place on the airwaves as well as in newsprint. Along with Siskel, he invented the now famous ‘Two Thumbs Up’ rating system that was displayed proudly on many film posters at the time, seen as the nation’s seal of approval.
No-one agreed with him all of the time, but his opinions were always eloquent and his personality always came through. He died smiling, and that’s how I felt after reading his reviews, even if I disagreed with every word.
Anyone who continues writing as prolifically as Roger Ebert after such severe medical problems deserves to be cherished and we have the internet to thank for so much of his writing being preserved for future generations of critics.
Personally, I’d like to thank Ebert for inspiring me to continue on the path towards critiquing the movies professionally. Without his writing to learn from, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today and for that, I am eternally grateful.
So, Roger Ebert, rest in peace and thank you for taking us on this journey with you.
We’ll see you at the movies.