When Roger Ebert died a couple weeks ago, movie fans around the world mourned. Most eulogies ranged from respectful overviews of his life and work to moving testimonials extolling his prose and insight. I may have been remiss in not commenting immediately on his passing, since his absence does indeed leave a large void in the profession of film criticism, but what I’ll miss most about Ebert has somewhat to do with his accomplishments, and somewhat to do with the particular role he played in pop culture. These two things are related, but not the same. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that when I’ve mentioned Ebert, it has not always been in a flattering way. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I did appreciate his work, and he was a skilled critic. What we’ve lost, however, isn’t a good film critic but rather the only film critic in America (possibly the world) who mattered to the moviegoing public.
Lots of people read reviews. They visit Rotten Tomatoes or perhaps they follow their local paper’s resident critic; maybe there’s a blogger they particularly like, or maybe they just have that one Facebook friend who reliably gives the lowdown on everything s/he’s seen recently. There are still dozens — hundreds — of critics of Ebert’s caliber out there, and there are several that I frankly enjoy more than him. The thing about Ebert is that he came along at exactly the right moment in our culture to carve out a specific kind of persona. For a variety of reasons, not all of them having to do with his actual prose or personality, Ebert became the archetype of the Critic we all imagine when we think of those sitting in a darkened theater with pen and paper a week or two days before the release of a movie, ready to praise or savage it for their public. For the most part, Ebert was perceived as a benevolent sage, as opposed to an Addison de Witt, and this was an image he earned. However, his unique status as America’s preeminent film critic enabled him to attract a great deal of attention whenever he espoused views that weren’t always enlightened or ingratiating with the majority of his readership. Being the only film critic in the world who mattered to Joe Public meant that he was also virtually the only film critic in the world who could generate controversy simply by stating his opinion. (Sorry, Armond. Only haters and intrigued contrarians like me care what you think.)
Thinking back over the last twenty years or so, it’s difficult to think of many mainstream critics who have done anything that drew attention to the substance of their opinions by created anything resembling a controversy. Even if Ebert wasn’t the one to create the controversy, he usually benefitted from it. I recall when David Lynch’s Lost Highway came out, advertisements ran in the newspapers bragging that Siskel and Ebert had given it two thumbs down, which prompted a conversation about the relevance of critics and the way they resonated with various audiences. A popular YouTube video shows the pair debating with John Simon the merits of Return of the Jedi; the fact that this video is making the rounds thirty years after it was broadcast indicates that there’s a certain amount of stock in the fact that critics came to verbal blows over what is now a touchstone film in popular entertainment. Not just any critics; Siskel and Ebert.
There were similar mini-controversies from just the last decade. Remember the kerfuffle over Ebert’s four-star review of Knowing, which prompted not one but two further blog posts defending his opinion? Then there was the incident in which he reviewed a movie without having watched the entire thing, being forced to walk back his scathing review later. How about his not-entirely-unfair tweet about “Jackass” Ryan Dunn’s death? And, of course, there was his dismissal of video games as art. The point isn’t that Ebert was right or wrong in any of this stuff. The point is that when anybody but Ebert says or does stuff like this, the only people who care are probably hardcore cinephiles who thrive on manufacturing topics for debate. But when Ebert says it, it reaches a larger circumference of the public sphere. At least, it did. Now that Ebert is gone, there is nobody who occupies that particular place in American culture.
Much as I often lament the level of vitriol that passes for discourse these days, there is something to be said for having someone who stirs the pot productively — a provocateur who can bring attention to issues and generate actual debate, as opposed to name-calling and fiery denunciations of a truly Puritanical order. Public debate needs controversy to a certain extent. Not a culture war, per se, but issues framed in such a way as to amply demonstrate to the average citizen that s/he has a stake in whichever direction the issue is taken. Ebert did that for the movies. He knew that movies mattered, and he devoted his life to illustrating that as clearly as he was able. In that endeavor, I think his legacy was of success. But the degree to which that legacy remains immediate and relevant to the further evolution of motion pictures within our culture is anything but set in stone. With Ebert around, we always had a focal point around which to orient the larger discussion. With him gone, that responsibility falls to all of us with a vested interest in the subject, but none of us has the cachet he did. It is now incumbent upon the cineastes and cinephiles of the world to uphold Ebert’s legacy. As discourse wanes, so does the memory of his life’s work; let his death be commemorated by the continuing conversation. ☕