After long and varied battles with cancer, Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has died. He was 70.
More than any other writer in the English language - and that is not hyperbole, folks - Roger Ebert personified film criticism in popular culture. After the 1999 death of critical sparring partner Gene Siskel - with whom he'd established the thumbs-up/thumbs-down review method on their television shows Sneak Previews (later Siskel & Ebert At The Movies) - Ebert became the solo face of cinematic authority. Other critics had been well-known, but Ebert was popular; he was a brand name in the industry.
As my colleague John Semley wrote yesterday, Ebert "proved that daily paper reviews and TV criticism could be as intelligent as they are accessible." He was a sharp corrective to the burbling, blurbing idiocy of a Gene Shalit or a Rex Reed; he addressed the reader or viewer as an adult who might be interested in actually thinking about the film under discussion. He didn't write to alienate. He was inclusive, constantly trying to bring people over to his side or at least get them to consider a problematic movie in a new way. I occasionally describe the ideal purpose of a film critic as being a champion of cinema. Roger Ebert was such a champion.
He had an Internet presence well before most of his contemporaries, chatting with readers and film buffs on Compuserve forums back in the early 90s. After a horrific near-death experience in 2006 following the removal of a cancerous salivary gland left him unable to speak, eat or drink, the Internet became his means of communication. Blogging (and tweeting, once that became a thing) let him express himself with clarity and eloquence, even if he couldn't speak the words aloud.
And if his film reviews started skewing towards the overly forgiving, the personal essays he wrote for his Sun-Times minisite - which, at press time, had crashed under the traffic of people rushing to re-read their favourite review - grew more passionate and complex, tackling the rise of American fundamentalism with a clearly argued moral authority and a compassion for his ideological opponents that those opponents never offered him.
I had a nodding acquaintance with the man - we met a few times at various TIFFs, and had a couple of e-mail arguments over his description of Warner's Stanley Kubrick laserdiscs as "pan and scan" rather than open-matte back in the 90s. He was a movie nerd, and I was a movie nerd; that's how movie nerds communicate.
A fellow critic once told me about the time Ebert took her and a few of their colleagues for dinner after some TIFF press screening or another in the late 90s. He didn't tell them he was doing so; he just accepted an invitation to join them and quietly picked up the cheque. (As I was writing the previous paragraph, a friend texted me to mention the time he met Ebert in the washroom after a TIFF screening of My Own Private Idaho, which would have been September of 1991. They chatted about David Lynch.)
In 1992, I sat next to him at the TIFF press screening of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant in the long-gone, rickety Backstage Cinema, and heard him giggling like a schoolboy whenever Ferrara poured on the religious stuff. (Ebert referred to his Roman Catholic upbringing often enough in his writing that I figured it out pretty fast.) But when we got to the climactic moment where Harvey Keitel spits epithets at the image of Christ, Ebert was silent; after a moment, I realized he'd been holding his breath.
In 2007, I saw him again at a TIFF press screening of Encounters At The End Of The World - this was a year and a bit after his tracheostomy, but well before the prosthetic that gave him a perpetual awkward smile. There was a small commotion when he arrived in the theatre; he had to be escorted to his seat for some reason, and everyone wound up turning their heads to see what was going on.
What none of us knew was that Werner Herzog had dedicated the film to him, but when the text came up on-screen the room exploded in applause and bravos - both for Herzog and for Ebert. It's still one of the most moving experiences of my career, and a couple of years later I was able to ask Herzog what prompted the dedication.
"He deserves it," the director said without hesitation. "I admire him so deeply for being such a good soldier of cinema, when there's hardly anyone left. He's like the last woolly mammoth out there, and I just salute the greatest of all soldiers - I always had the sense of being a good soldier of cinema, but he is phenomenal."
Indeed he was. And he still is, since his reviews are available online and in dozens of print collections. There's also his exceptional autobiography Life Itself: A Memoir, through which you can hear his voice as clear as a bell. You could do worse than seek out his textured, engaging DVD commentary tracks for films like Citizen Kane, Floating Weeds, Crumb, Dark City and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls - which Ebert co-wrote, basically on a dare, with T&A maven Russ Meyer in 1970.
It's no exaggeration that you could spend months or even years poring over the multitude of material Ebert leaves behind. And you'd still want more, which is the shame of it.