Why Roger Ebert Mattered: Lessons Learned From a Life in Criticism


Why Roger Ebert Mattered: Lessons Learned From a Life in Criticism


In absence of any personal relationship, the instinctual move following any public figure’s death is to ruminate on what that person meant to you, the one who is still alive and thankfully capable of appreciating whatever legacy has been left behind. A selfish response, maybe, but the only rational one when the depth of what’s been lost seems too large to immediately grapple with—especially when death comes to as magnanimous and looming of a public figure as Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday following a protracted battle with cancer.

Consider this: Is there any doubt that Ebert, who cut an acerbic and memorable television profile while also filing millions of words to the Chicago Sun-Times, is the most prominent film critic of all-time? Your Bazins and Kaels may have meant more to the development of film criticism as a study, but Ebert is the one who broke the idea of film criticism as a personal and pleasurable pursuit, available to audiences across the country regardless of experience or background. He was mid brow but unapologetically so, and approached film in a way that removed the need for such aesthetic classification. The movies were for everyone, whether you were watching a restored print of The 400 Blows or settling in for The Avengers—they were a place to both lose and think about yourself, to find personal meaning in the sublime of a darkened room, a giant screen, and the developed imagination of a world outside your own.

So pardon me for a moment when I talk about what learned from Ebert’s writing—which was that there was nothing shameful about being accessible, about acknowledging and articulating the experiences that weren’t specific to yourself without worrying about no longer coming across as a unique, precious flower. About the pleasure of being wrong, and revising one’s opinion given new information and perspective. Because what could be better than finding a better way to see something? Ebert’s movie reviews primarily talked about what he’d seen, but they also offered a guide to life—which the best films do, and which he never hesitated to explain so that everyone else might capture a part of the joy he found in screening after screening. It’s unavoidably sad that he passed away so soon after announcing his partial retirement from active reviewing, but what a way to go; a critic until the end, unbowed by mortality, ever appreciative of what he’d had. Which is something we won’t soon see, as I imagine it’ll be quite a long time before any other critic in any other field is given his own television show. Death is sad, but you couldn’t ask for a fuller life. Below, I compiled some of his reviews that stood out to me over the years, with a few notes on why they mattered.

Lost in Translation (2003)

“These conversations can really only be held with strangers. We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale. When the talk occurs between two people who could plausibly have sex together, it gathers a special charge: you can only say “I feel like I’ve known you for years” to someone you have not known for years. Funny, how your spouse doesn’t understand the bittersweet transience of life as well as a stranger encountered in a hotel bar. Especially if drinking is involved.”

(A perfect explication of a universal experience, buried in a breakdown of the film.)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

“It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ (1971). This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come — not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem–an elegy for the dead.”

(Heavy praise—the highest there is, really—but no hyperbole. Plenty of writers struggle to avoid exaggeration when trying to articulate why they enjoyed something so much; here’s Ebert, tempering the gas pedal with the brakes.)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

“I sipped my coffee and nodded thoughtfully. This was deep. I never subsequently read a single word by Levi-Strauss, but you see I have not forgotten the name. I have no idea if Marx was right. The idea, I think, is that life is like this movie: No matter how many theories you apply to it, life presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat.”

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

“Because it is animated and from Japan, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ has been little seen. When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. Now that it’s available on DVD with a choice of subtitles or English dubbing, maybe it will find the attention it deserves. Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”

(Arguing for a medium—anime—that plenty of adults would’ve dismissed as silly in a matter-of-fact tone; the proper way to do so.)

Knowing (2009)

“All of my considerations are probably irrelevant to enjoyment of the film. But the film inspired me to think in these ways, and not many films do. It was exciting while watching ‘Knowing,’ and while trying to puzzle it out. Just on the fundamental level of a movie-going experience, I think Proyas’s film is a great entertainment, one of those Bruised Forearm Movies where you’re always grabbing the friend next to you. Nicolas Cage, a remarkably versatile actor, embodies the role. He internalizes doubt and fear, until they gnaw at his character. He plays a man of action always fearful of inadequacy, a hero by the seat of his pants. The young actors Chandler Canterbury and Lara Robinson (who plays both little girls) are uncommonly good at projecting deep solemnity, not easy for children. ‘Knowing,’ as I sometimes like to say, is what going to the movies is all about.”

The Brown Bunny (2004, recut)

“When movies were cut on Movieolas, there was a saying that they could be ‘saved on the green machine.’ Make no mistake: The Cannes version was a bad film, but now Gallo’s editing has set free the good film inside. ‘The Brown Bunny’ is still not a complete success — it is odd and off-putting when it doesn’t want to be — but as a study of loneliness and need, it evokes a tender sadness. I will always be grateful I saw the movie at Cannes; you can’t understand where Gallo has arrived unless you know where he started.”

(Ebert had a publicly ugly fight with Gallo, whose film he initially called the worst he’d ever seen at Cannes—they had it out in the papers, with Gallo calling him fat and threatening to put a hex on his colon and Ebert responding, “I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny. And yet here he was, appraising Gallo’s edit with an understanding if not adulatory eye, complimenting what had been changed and enjoying what it had taken to get there—a reminder to any critic that their opinion should never be immutable, that they should always be open-minded.)

Hoop Dreams (1994)

(The original argument for this movie as a must-see experience, when the idea of a 3-hour documentary about inner city basketball would’ve turned off many moviegoers. Because of the indignation when Hoop Dreams wasn’t nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar due to an arcane voting procedure, the process was actually changed—and Ebert, who frequently named the movie as one of the best of the ’90s, never stopped fighting for it.)

Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006)

“There will be malcontents who claim I am not the real author of this review, because how could a cat know that after you mention a character in a movie, you include the name of the actor in parentheses? Do these people believe a cat lives in a vacuum? I read all the movie reviews, especially those of Ebert, a graceful and witty prose stylist with profound erudition, whose reviews are worth reading just for themselves, whether or not I have any intention of viewing the movie. I need to read movie reviews because Jon watches DVDs all the time and likes to have me within petting distance, and I need advance warning about movies I will want to avoid, so I can slink off for a snooze under the sofa. Last night, for example, he watched ‘Cat People’ — which, judging by the soundtrack, had no cats in it.”

(He found joy in reviewing a silly children’s cartoon by reviewing it as though he were Garfield himself. Legend.)