As a contributor to Criticwire, I was recently asked to send in my thoughts and memories of the great film critic Roger Ebert, who passed away this week at the age of 70. I never met Ebert, but I’ll remember him most as a writer of great clarity and precision, and as a champion of cinema and of increased cinematic knowledge in the general public. Read more of my thoughts below.
While other critics and scholars are remembered for contributions to academia and film theory, I think Ebert’s legacy will be as the cinematic voice of the people. With his writing and other critical endeavors like the TV show At The Movies and his film festival Ebertfest, he became a trusted public persona that consistently steered audiences towards worthwhile films, many which they perhaps might not have otherwise seen. In this respect, he might be compared to the Marshall McLuhan of film criticism, unafraid to serve as a popular icon in his field, but a thinker whose work is no less rigorous or meaningful for being widely accessible.
As a young cinephile and writer, I used Ebert’s tightly-constructed articles as models of form and style for my own non-fiction essays, whether about film or not. In particular, I made heavy use out of used galley copy of Ebert’s The Great Movies book, and checked off each title until I’d seen them all. His writing always gave me something to look for when I watched the films, and helped kickstart my own ideas after I’d seen them.
Over the years, I kept track of Ebert’s new additions to his ever-expanding online list of The Great Movies, which will continue to serve as a great list to start or deepen any film fan’s exploration of cinematic history. Through the titles on this list and his regular film writing, Ebert demonstrated an impressive range of tastes, appreciations and influences.
This will be the lesson I most remember from Ebert. Film is truly an art and a technology of great range, both as a means of mass entertainment and of intimate, personal expression. Ebert never closed himself off from either end of this spectrum, and it’s my goal as a critic to remain similarly open to all that film has to offer, and to inspire readers to do the same.