Earlier today the Chicago Sun-Times announced that Roger Ebert, who served as the newspaper’s chief film critic since 1967, passed away. He was seventy years old. Ebert had been battling thyroid cancer and various health issues since 2002. In the last few years jaw had to be removed removed and he was unable to speak, but that didn’t stop him from reviewing films for the Sun-Times and his website until Ebert announced two days ago that he would be taking a “leave of presence.” Sadly, that amounted to Ebert’s final public comments in his lifetime.
Ebert’s opinions always carried a lot of weight in the film industry. After all, if you asked the average person to name a film critic they would mostly likely say “Roger Ebert.” His “thumbs up” rating system, made famous during his stint as host of a television show (which he originally hosted with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel, who died in 1999), remained until his death praise that was proclaimed on the posters of nearly every great film.
However, I far more enjoyed Ebert for his negative reviews — though it certainly takes no genius to rip apart a bad movie, Ebert did it to a degree that made it an art form. One of my two favorite books on film are Ebert’s I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks, which compiled his most negative reviews. The books are filled with so much criticism of awful movies that they virtually serve as a “how not to make a movie” guide. Of all these, Ebert might be best remembered for his review of the 1994 North, which featured this immortal gem:
I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. I hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.
Of course, sometimes Ebert went a bit overboard with his negative reviews. In fact, I remember his original review for The Campaign being completely inaccurate in the way it described the political affiliations of the lead characters to make a point about politics that really wasn’t in the film (the review was amended a few days later).
However, there’s no reason to focus on the negative. In his nearly fifty-year career of criticism, Ebert championed many Hollywood films and was also a strong supporter of independent film. His reviews likely launched the careers of many directors and screenwriters. Ebert periodically wrote essays on films considered the best of all time until the title of Great Movies. Of course, he wrote essays about the obvious suspects (Casablanca and Citizen Kane), but I always loved when he held up a movie not often recognized for its greatness — like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — and explained why they belong listed among the great films of all time. One thing he always focused on in these essays is the emotional charge we get from watching movies — and frankly, as someone who loves movies, that explains every reason why I’ve been obsessed with film since I was a kid. In that essay about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Ebert wrote two sentences that completely sum up the wonderfulness of films we all love:
The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart
The best testament I could give to the influence and impact that Ebert had on film criticism is the sheer amount of people who have tried to imitate his approach to criticism. Though he became a critic in a far different era — before anyone could set up a website or a blog and label himself or herself a film critic — he was never looked at as a fossil from an earlier time. His work always remained on the cutting edge of film criticism and was held in the utmost respect by nearly every person who enjoyed film.