Influential film critic Roger Ebert needs to be appreciated for how frankly he talked about cancer, a recurrence of which was the cause of his death yesterday (April 4th) at age 70. It was the subject of many blog posts, a TED Talk, and relevant to many reviews. In one of his most memorable negative pieces, he synopsised The Bucket List as: “two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible.”
His cancer treatment was the basis for his argument to support fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama for president. Obama responded to the news of Ebert’s death, saying that “the movies won’t be the same without Roger.” I don’t disagree with Obama, but I’m a little more optimistic. Having seen the work of critics that Ebert recently published on his own site – Jim Emerson and others – it seems to me there is no way the world of film journalism will start declining, even if many of them cite the Movie Man as their main influence. Unsurprisingly for a supporter of Obama and the Democratic Party, a naive kind of American liberalism can be detected in lots of his reviews and statements. He gave Lincoln ‘two thumbs up’ and had no critical points for filmmaker Michael Moore.
Looking at what Ebert considered Great Movies, it is clear that many of his favourites and most written about films are from the ‘60s and earlier, meaning much of his readership won’t have seen or heard of them. But this never made his a stuffy traditionalist. In 1995, Toy Story became the first entirely computer-generated feature-length film. He and Gene Siskel were excited by how great it looked and for the future of computer animation, dismissing the paranoia about older styles dying out. He also felt that Cameron’s Avatar was $300-million well spent. This is the same guy who loved 2011’s silent movie imitation The Artist and said movie-goers who don’t like black-and-white are ‘cinematically illiterate’ and have a ‘limited imagination.’
Of course he didn’t just appreciate science when it served cinema. Charles Darwin was one of his greatest heroes. His widely read (and commented on) journal regularly talked about evolution and the nuisance of biblical literalism and other pseudoscience. Not worried about preserving his precious position and reputation, he made some bold assertions on the subjects, including the claim that creationists are not qualified to be president and scolding Ben Stein’s Expelled (a documentary that aimed to scandalise the exclusion of Intelligent Design from teaching) for ignoring the scientific consensus. Writing in 2006 on the 1960 classic Inherit the Wind, based on the trial that would decide the future of evolution in education, Ebert asked: “I wonder if a film made today would have the nerve to question fundamentalism as bluntly.”
It is as important for popular critics as it is for academics to apply historical context to their work. One skill is being able to vividly describe a sequence of events. He started his very first review in 1967 of the French film Galia this way: “it opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all, but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave.” But what future writers who want to criticise any art form seriously and lengthily really need to emulate from Roger Ebert is applying a wealth of knowledge about cinema history and more general world history to their reviews.
Reading his zero-star slams will always be fun, but you can tell he enjoyed more writing about the movies he loved. Despite a long trial with his illness, his very last journal post ends in a way that suggests he was nowhere near finished: “I’ll see you at the movies.”