Roger Ebert died this week. And I’m glad to see that in the countless articles and blog posts eulogizing him, he is never referred to “only” as a film critic. As someone whose dream job used to be entertainment critic, I’ve sometimes felt like my ambitions were less serious than my peers who dreamed of parachuting into a war zone armed only with a notebook and a tape recorder, even of dedicating their lives to small-town papers to report on their city council meetings.
But entertainment journalism, although it has the potential to be “soft” when reporting on the comings and goings of D-list celebrities, has its place. As the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, Ebert demonstrated not only the value of film itself in reflecting or subverting the values of society, but also in discussing and critiquing film and the way it reflects or subverts those values.
In the thousands of reviews he wrote over four and a half decades at the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets, he was never afraid to digress into a commentary on social and political issues. Ebert was criticized over the summer for speaking out in favour of gun control in the wake of the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and many of his opponents said that he should stick to talking about movies. But as Ebert so often proved, there are so many times when you can’t talk about movies without talking about life.
This isn’t to say, however, that for a movie to be good, or valid, or worth discussing, it must relate to life or have a deeper meaning. Sometimes film can just be fun. That’s another thing I always enjoyed about Ebert’s reviews; he compared films to other films like them rather than with complete objectivity. A well-done romcom may not be as “objectively” good as Citizen Kane, but Ebert wouldn’t mark it down simply for the error of not being Citizen Kane. This is something that I’m sure most critics do, because otherwise the majority of films would probably be given two stars or fewer, but Ebert was so unapologetic about it—sometimes films are important and sometimes they’re not, and that’s okay.
At the same time, he could get outraged about a bad movie. Some of his reviews read as though they are accusing the film of personally insulting its audience for making us watch such an awful film. As much as he did not look down on films for not aspiring to brilliance, he also didn’t give a pass to those which only reached for the lowest bars.
Roger Ebert was witty. Countless lists have been written before and since his death ranking some of his best zingers. But he was was also thoughtful, intelligent, and kind. Unless you are a journalist, or very interested in journalism, most people don’t remember many journalists by name, even if you like their writing. But everyone knows Ebert’s name. He was like a friend, the kind of friend you asked before you went to a movie, to see what he thought of it, and afterward maybe you’d nod in agreement or maybe you’d argue, even only in your own head.
Whenever a writer who means as much as Ebert did dies, there are dozens or perhaps hundreds of tributes to him, and in the grand scheme of things mine is hardly meaningful. But he was meaningful to me. He showed that loving pop culture and wanting to critique and discuss it is not shallow, doesn’t have to be. Movies are a less-appreciated art in that they are not considered as sophisticated as books or paintings despite decades of evidence to the contrary, but Ebert showed that everything is worth talking about, and that discussion can critique who we are along with what we watch.
Now I recommend you read Ebert’s final blog post, which ends with this beautiful line:
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies. – Roger Ebert, 1942-2013