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A common sentiment recurs through the abundance of eulogies and obituaries penned by film critics in the wake of his death late last week: Roger Ebert was an inspiration.
It’s easy enough to be encouraged by another’s success — to regard an esteemed elder colleague with a combination of admiration and envy — but genuine inspiration, feeling galvanized and invigorated by a person, is considerably rarer. And considerably more valuable: to compel others to pursue a dream or live and think differently simply by virtue of setting an example is to effect actual change in the world, an accomplishment by any measure. Ebert’s real legacy, perhaps more than the voluminous body of work he leaves behind, is the very field of contemporary film criticism, which his example shaped to a remarkable degree.
Now he’s gone, and the void left by his absence cannot be overstated.
For more than 45 years, his writing — clear, unpretentious, inflected with his singular personality — established a template for film writing as warmly embraced as it was widely emulated. Though the 1960s found America’s critical community divided evenly along the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael faultline, Ebert offered an alternative by way of compromise: Adopting neither the French-indebted intellectualism of the former nor the reactionary hectoring of the latter, Ebert’s sensibility seemed to stand apart, at once conversational and rigorous, breezy and greatly informed.
Like Sarris, Ebert appreciated burgeoning academic concepts like auteur theory, applying their methods to the relaxed tenor of his reviews. And like Kael, Ebert was quick to champion more radical films whose themes or aesthetics went largely misunderstood. He was, in many ways, the ultimate well-rounded critic: respected, down to earth, his field’s most accessible expert.
You’ll find many young critics happy to reminisce about a shared early memory: Stumbling upon a strange television show in which two men argued seriously and intelligently about movies, we learned that there was more to see than what was at the multiplex, that it was OK to demand more of our entertainment and, most urgently, that the cinema was worth thinking about and fighting for. Though his tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times had long since proven him a formidable writer (and had won him the Pulitzer Prize some years earlier), his weekly appearances with Siskel made him a bona fide star, not only introducing his name and face to millions of Americans but also, more incredibly, introducing those Americans to a new conception of criticism and of the cinema itself. Once he hit television, it wasn’t long before Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel became the world’s most recognizable film critics, perhaps the only ones to be considered household names.
I remain convinced that, had I not seen At the Movies as a child, I would not be writing film criticism today. I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other critics amateur and professional alike who feel the same way. That kind of influence is indelible. It also simply isn’t possible anymore: Because the Internet continues to favor increased specialization and personally tailored content, it’s relatively easy for a writer to reach many interested voices but next to impossible for that writer to reach beyond that.
It’s likely that, because there are now infinitely more opportunities for regular film lovers to voice their opinions and be heard, we have access to more great writing than ever before; but a consequence of this changed landscape is that one voice cannot be a unifying force, making it hard to bring a niche subject to the masses. After his health declined sharply in 2006 — including surgical complications that permanently obstructed his ability to speak — Ebert used the Internet to become better and more prolific, expanding his purview to include a thoughtful and politically engaged personal blog and increasing his ordinary review output week after week. He engaged with his fans through social media, authored a memoir and brought budding writers into the fold with sidebar guest columns built into the architecture of his site. But with At the Movies he’d already laid the groundwork upon which a life’s work can be built, and that’s still the foundation of his worldwide fame and cultural significance.
What Ebert’s efforts each week did for film criticism — effectively validating the career in the eyes of an audience impressed by his authority — cannot easily be undone, and he will forever be the public face of a field defined by bylines. But neither can he easily be replaced: To put it bluntly, there can never be another Roger Ebert.
Though his affinity was always for Martin Scorsese, a better directorial analog might be Steven Spielberg, the one director known by name by everybody, everywhere. Like Spielberg, Ebert was an intellectual by trade but a populist at heart, an artist of wit and imagination and consummate professionalism. (There’s meaningful symmetry in the fact that Jaws, Spielberg’s industry-changing blockbuster, hit theaters the same year Sneak Previews made its TV debut.) And like Spielberg, Ebert endures in the popular imagination as more than merely famous — he’s iconic.
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