Missionary for the Movies: Remembering Roger Ebert
During the late twentieth century, there were four primary platforms for American film criticism. There was the popular press, all the daily newspapers and weekly mass-circulation magazines. There was the trade press, principally Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. There were the specialized cinephile magazines, from The Velvet Light Trap up to Film Comment and Cineaste. And there were the academic journals, principally Film Quarterly and Cinema Journal.
These were very distinct realms, often harboring mutual hostility. The daily and weekly reviewers gibed at the professors, while academics looked down their noses at nearly all mass-market critics. Andrew Sarris got a pass, chiefly because he had influenced so many film teachers, but I remember being embarrassed at faculty parties when people outside film asked me what I thought of Pauline Kael’s latest review. I never read her, and nobody I respected did either.
The burst of TV review shows in the late 1970s, launched by the success of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s Sneak Previews, only intensified things. Siskel and Ebert realized that audiences had a keen appetite for clips—not the glimpses we get in trailers, but somewhat longer bits that would give us the flavor of a new release. But the film professoriat deplored the three-minute reviews, the shorthand judgments (thumbs up, thumbs down), and the plethora of clips. It seemed to us that the skinny guy and the fat guy, regardless of whether they recommended the movie or not, were functioning as part of the publicity for the film. The rise of movie review programs seemed to be in sync with 1970s strategies of saturation booking, shock-and-awe TV ads, and a general sense that each weekend’s releases were obligatory pop-culture events. Movie criticism was becoming an extension of the industry. The drift toward reviewing as infotainment was even clearer when Premiere emerged in the 1980s and Entertainment Weekly in the 1990s.
Roger Ebert was a regional critic who wrote occasionally for slick magazines; his Esquire profiles of Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum have become classics of fly-on-the-wall New Journalism. The TV show made him a national figure, but I think it only reaffirmed academic indifference to him and to journalistic criticism generally.
We were too smug. Even if the show did promote Hollywood for 90% or so of its running time, it created an occasion for Siskel and Ebert to point out worthy smaller films. Now that Roger’s death has opened a flood of reminiscence from across the country, it’s obvious that the show helped cultivate a variety of tastes. For thousands of children and teenagers, Siskel and Ebert opened a door to kinds of cinema that was not part of their ordinary life. And as VHS and cable television expanded, viewers in Dayton or Fond du Lac could catch up with what the pair had talked about. Siskel and Ebert made cinephilia of all kinds respectable.
For me, Ebert was the man to watch. He was the designated film geek, while Siskel was a stand-in for the divorced dad looking for a movie to take his kid or his date to. Ebert could praise studio tentpole items and self-consciously serious art movies but he didn’t stint genre films, offbeat items, and independent fare. He practiced what Matt Zoller Seitz has called “silver linings” criticism: If something was good of its kind, give it the benefit of the doubt. He was closer than most mass-market critics to Cahiers du cinema’s “criticism of enthusiasm,” the idea that one should write only about the films one admires. It’s significant that just before his death, his blog posted the news that he’d still be writing, but “I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”
As I came to know Roger in the early 2000s, I realized that the TV Ebert showed only one side of him. He did have the newspaperman’s love of the punchy lede and the rapid retort, skills on display in his banter with Siskel. But he was also an all-around intellectual in a way that few film critics have ever been.
He read widely in politics and science. An English literature major, he knew Dickens and Shaw intimately. The appreciative essays collected in the Great Movies volumes show a wide and deep knowledge of the arts. In public forums, he defended evolutionary theory and the prospect of living without a god to worship. Ever refusing the demarcation between high culture and low, he loved Simenon as well as Shakespeare, and he was proud of having written the script for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He had a wicked sense of humor too, as can be confirmed by his submissions to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest.
Roger was a journalist through and through, but he could have been quite comfortable in university teaching. He taught a famous night class at the University of Chicago, while maintaining a breathless schedule of writing and travel. For decades he conducted sessions of close analysis at festivals and conferences, even on cruise ships. “Democracy in the Dark,” he called these encounters. He would screen a film once all the way through, and then replay it on laserdisc, inviting anyone in the audience to call out, “Stop!” and then let everyone discuss what was happening. Sometimes the audience would spend days with a movie. People loved the chance to share a communal experience of coming to know a film intimately.
That sense of communal participation was magnified by his online activities. Ever eager to communicate with anybody, he embraced the Internet faster than any other critic, and his zeal for Facebook and Twitter became legendary. He got thousands of comments, and he replied to an astonishing number of them.
Roger visited Madison twice for our local festival, and I saw his teaching abilities at full stretch. In 2003 we screened A Hard Day’s Night at the Orpheum Theatre. The vast picture palace was packed, and Roger’s introduction was greeted with nearly as many whoops and claps as the movie itself. In 2006 he returned to do Q & A on Laura, another of the nominees in his Great Movies pantheon. During the same visit he sat down with our graduate students and discussed cinema with them. I saw then that Roger was an educator, but one without a theory to peddle. He was a straightforward, kindly person with an unbiased intelligence. He was as interested in people as in ideas.
Contrary to what you might have expected, I’m not going to suggest that Roger bridged the gaps among the different film cultures. Those gaps remain, even in the age of the Web. But without being an academic, or an industry insider, or a specialized cinephile, he made a great many people think seriously about film as an art.
Roger showed that popular film criticism could be an intellectually honorable enterprise—more than that, a calling. We have, I think he would have said, enough missionaries for this or that divinity. We need more missionaries for movies.