Why Roger Ebert was Unique; The Web Says Goodbye to Our Most Famous Critic: Memories, Writing and Video

Why Roger Ebert was Unique; The Web Says Goodbye to Our Most Famous Critic: Memories, Writing and Video

The reaction to Roger Ebert’s death has been overwhelming and gratifying. The major news networks, CNN, Frontline, you name it, they covered it. Every single movie site or reviewer or blogger or anyone who cared about movies weighed in.

Here’s the deal.

Ebert was the most famous movie critic who ever lived. No critic will ever be as famous again, because his need to share his passion for films via television and text was so huge that there was no room for vanity or putting on a fake face. Audiences responded to his honesty–and the fact that he and Gene Siskel were genuine rivals. That was lightning in a bottle. Ebert was the new model film critic who took to the web like a duck to water because he was always about honest, forthright engagement.

He wasn’t speaking to film fans from on high, lecturing to them about what they should like. He was enthusiastically sharing what he loved. He liked to discover new talent like Michael Moore (he responded to Moore’s plea to go to the first “Roger and Me” screening that no one else was seeing at Telluride) and Errol Morris, who credits Ebert’s review of “Gates of Heaven” with his career.

And he did something with his fame, as Moore pointed out on CNN, that no one critic can do today: he reached the mainstream. That’s significant, because while film criticism is alive and well on the web, fewer critics have been able to build national followings the way Ebert did. No other critic has been able to make television work for them, either. All the would-be “At the Movies” have failed–and Ebert couldn’t keep a movie review show going without his own full-throttle voice.

What looking death in the face did for Ebert was free him from caring about how he was perceived, or being worried about writing about topics other than film. On the web he could write about anything, and so he did.

Here’s Ebert’s famous article “I Do Not Fear Death,” from 2011, and here’s his winning cartoon caption for the New Yorker. Here’s our obit.  And it looks like “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James plans to continue with his Ebert documentary, “Life Itself.”

Below, a sampling of what the internet and media world are saying in memoriam of Roger Ebert.

President Barack Obama:

“For a generation of Americans – and especially Chicagoans –
Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did,
he was effusive – capturing the unique power of the movie to take us somewhere
magical. Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he
was resilient – continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world.
The movies won’t be the same without Roger.”

Richard Corliss, Time:

His connection with readers was a communal, reciprocal pleasure. Rare for a critic, he was as interested in other people’s opinions as his own. Roger was startlingly at ease with his celebrity, never shriveling in the limelight, always amicable to strangers who approached him at film festivals. He was sharing his thoughts on the Internet before friend was a verb; today, his Twitter following numbers 841,148. And never, not ever, did he suffer from writer’s block, which must have made his enforced silence during the year of his calamitous surgeries a hell of several kinds.

For the rest of his 46 years as a critic, Roger streamed millions of words, by voice or print, by digital or social media. He could not have achieved this ceaseless prodigality if he did not also have an enlightened capitalist’s organizational mastery of his midsize empire of journalism and movie love. You don’t build a career like his — actually, there was no career like his — without optimism, discipline and a sharp business sense. He made millions and earned every penny.

Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times:

“Before Ebert, there was plenty of smart film criticism. But
movie-related essays could also be windy and inaccessible. Ebert, picking up in
some ways on the democratic spirit of Pauline Kael (though with his own spin)
was part of a movement to change all that. Using a direct and entertaining
prose style, his nonetheless sophisticated print reviews (he was one of the
first critics to win a Pulitzer Prize) ensured that people far away from film
scholarship could understand and use the same analytical tools that critics

Carrie Rickey, Philly.com:

Of all Mr. Ebert’s contributions to film culture – which
include 17 books – the greatest were his love of movies, which was contagious,
and his ability to express that love in language as accessible as it was
entertaining. He was a movie omnivore who delighted in Japanese cinema,
American action flicks and exploitation movies (he even wrote one, Beyond the
Valley of the Dolls, in 1970).

 His movie reviews were founded on the principle that
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” And they
expressed complex ideas in simple terms.

Emanuel Levy, via Criticwire:

We did many panels together in various film festivals,
including one that I am very proud of moderating. In January 2002, barely four
months after Sept 11, Robert Redford and his team at Sundance Film Festival had
asked me to moderate a panel on politics and cinema. I proposed Roger Ebert as
a participant, along with the filmmakers that were in attendance, including
Mira Nair and Barbara Kopple. Redford also took active part in the panel. It
was an amazing experience: sad, touching, and illuminating.

Matt Atchity, Rotten Tomatoes:

“He really capitalized on the opportunities for communication on the internet… Ebert’s legacy will always loom large over anyone that’s writing about movies, and I don’t think anyone’s going to fill his shoes anytime soon.”

Annette Insdorf, Huffington Post:

It’s common knowledge that Roger was a smart, witty,
opinionated cinephile. He didn’t just review movies, but contributed to film
scholarship with DVD commentaries and books that revealed his gift for
appreciating each film within its own terms. But I got to know another aspect
of Roger through our many years of co-hosting the Cannes Film Festival Closing
Night for Bravo and IFC — namely his generosity.

Joe Leydon, Culturemap:

Just as Roger himself found humor in the situation when I
told him, during his earliest and seemingly victorious battles with the cancer
that would eventually defeat him, that I had lit two candles for him at my
neighborhood church as a prayer for his speedy recovery.

 “Thanks, Joe,” he replied. “But you know, the candles work
only if you actually pay for them.”

Matthew Ingram, PaidContent:

Twitter didn’t turn Ebert into a star, of course — he was
already well known as half of the Siskel and Ebert movie-reviewing team long
before he moved online, and his TV presence in turn came about because he was a
popular film columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. But after he was diagnosed
with thyroid cancer in 2002, and had to have a series of operations that
eventually left him unable to speak without a computer voice simulator, he
poured much of his enthusiasm for life and the movies into Twitter and other
social-media tools, including his personal blog.

And Tweet reactions:

“‘Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.’ -Roger Ebert (RIP) on writing and life.”

“Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That’s versatility.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum

“No kidding, the secret to his on-air energy: Roger Ebert played pattycake with every co-host before taping TV, said it was a must. Fun!”

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That cartoon is the most banal sentimental trash.

Gail E

Well said, and well done. Love the cartoon. Highly recommend his various
books on film.

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