“The movies won’t be the same without Roger.” This was a part of Barack Obama’s statement on the passing of Roger Ebert who lost his long, hard-fought battle with cancer. What was it about a film critic that elicited such a heartfelt and immediate remark from a president?
Ebert wrote on movies and reviewed them for over four decades at the Chicago Sun-Times. He watched 500 films and reviewed up to as many as 300 a year. The math of his prolificacy is mind-boggling. Such were his writing skills, his unyielding spirit, brilliant wit, and his incredible insight on cinema that he eventually became the most well-known and respected film critic on the planet, and even won the Pulitzer in 1975.
He claimed, rightly so, to give the world the phrase “two thumbs up”, a term he trademarked and reserved for movies he approved of, those he recommended to audiences. Ebert’s thumbs held the ability to make or break a film’s fortunes at the box office. This was a responsibility he took on with great care and incorruptible objectivity. He gave every chance to a film to prove its worth. A director that dared, a story that held your attention, actors that made you believe their characters… he’d love to have all three, but he was content with any one.
His reviews went beyond being mere objective. They were an education in themselves. Scroll through your twitter timeline, you’d be surprised at how many Indians half way around the world with no access to anything but his words – whether filmmakers, writers, or indeed those of any vocation – are paying their respects. You get the feeling that Ebert taught them: about movies, about life.
His later reviews would typically end with his personal musings, a compendium of Ebert’s own brand of philosophy. Sometimes he would empathize with a character to the extent of talking to him, giving him unsolicited advice; occasionally he would detail the effect a film might have on you: he believed movies could make better humans beings of us all. He famously surmised, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Of course, he was not impressed all the time. When there was no easy way to say it, he was blunt, “To say that George Lucas cannot write a love scene is an understatement; greeting cards have expressed more passion.”
Ebert denounced 3D, and was an incredibly good sport for all the brickbats he got for not considering video games an art form. Many got the impression that he was hesitant when it came to change. But he was only engaging people in debate and asking questions of new media as art. As a world authority on movies, he had every right to do so. That one blog post got over 5000 comments. And the responses came mostly from gamers, not his typical follower. His typical follower went to the movies. And at some level, weren’t we all his typical follower? Barack Obama certainly was.
If people disagree with film critics, usually they shun them and look for views that match their own. With Ebert, even if you didn’t agree you’d still listen and read to find out why and what his reasons were. Because it was Roger Ebert.