Roger Ebert may not have set out to become the world’s number one film critic, but circumstances handed him the title. When newspapers began their long dumb-down retreat from cultural life, Ebert was there to take up some of the slack. He had the Pulitzer, he had the name recognition, he had the television show, and he had the energy to churn out reams of wire copy as most newspapers were abandoning the idea of nurturing homegrown talent. That was his great good fortune. Our good fortune was that Ebert, in a position where he could have spent the rest of his life coasting, decided to step up his game in a big way. Blessed with a reach and status enjoyed by no other critic, Ebert became a better critic than he needed to be. In fact, during his last decade or so, he became a great one. There are many critics just as good as Ebert, but I doubt there will ever be another one who combines his talent with his wide-ranging impact. It’s standard for career retrospective pieces like this to end on a for-whom-the-bell-tolls note, but in Ebert’s case it’s more than appropriate. In terms of impact, he really was the last of his breed.
Ebert was tagged early on as a “Paulette,” favored by the influential film critic Pauline Kael, and his best work shared her passionate engagement, disdain for deep-dish critical theories, and readiness to celebrate art (or, at least, craftsmanship) where he found it. But he had a shaky start as a rather callow and conventional reviewer. This early piece about George Romero’s seminal horror film Night of the Living Dead is a long whine about violence in movies, with only the last paragraph devoted to the real issue — that the theater owner should have been horsewhipped for showing such a film as a kiddie matinee. The early months of Sneak Previews, the PBS show that made Ebert a household name, featured a stinker-of-the-week selection, complete with an appearance by Aroma the Educated Skunk, that invariably picked on some no-name release that hardly seemed worth the bother. The show’s chief attraction back then was the simmering dislike between Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, and the chance of seeing it boil over on camera. (See above.) One of their themed shows presented movies they thought celebrated the American family, one of them being The Great Santini, a film that could serve as a legal defense of patricide. A lot of writers who imagined that someday they would have a good media perch and a Kael-scale five-foot-shelf of books with their collected reviews scoffed at the show and thought, How did these two dweebs luck out? I know whereof I speak, because I was one of those scoffers.
But the genius of Sneak Previews, at least during its initial 1975-1982 run, was that it tapped into the essential quality shared by all movie buffs — their love of argument. There are passionate fans for any art form, but movie geeks are in a class of their own in terms of their readiness to throw down at any moment. By pitting two pugnacious critics from competing newspapers, the format tapped into that argumentative streak. Over the years Ebert and Siskel became friends, but Siskel remained officially unimpressed by Ebert’s Pulitzer-laureled credentials, and he never hesitated to call bullshit on camera. About 3.33 into this clip, you’ll see Siskel berating Ebert for giving higher praise to Benji the Hunted than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:
Note that Ebert gives as good as he gets during the exchange, which both parties allowed to air without any edits or re-dos. It reflects well on bot parties that they didn’t mind being seen at sword’s points. That air of intellectual aggression between equals vanished when Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews and took their show on the syndicated road in 1982. (They were succeeded by journalist Neal Gabler, who left in 1985, and Jeffrey Lyons, an over-the-hill showbiz columnist so desperate for TV time that he stayed on as Michael Medved’s dog until the show was euthanized in 1996.) Bob Costas once got Ebert to admit on camera that he probably never would have enjoyed the same level of success without Siskel. Costas also got each man to describe what he envied most about the other during a 1992 interview:
Some critics are hunter-gatherers who range far and wide, seeking art in obscure corners and disreputable genres, then returning to bring readers the good news. Other critics are more like country club desk managers, categorizing high and low art in order to decide who will be allowed into the swimming pool area. Ebert was a hunter-gatherer. Like Kael, he was shaped by a period in which American filmmaking was breaking down barriers and exploring new artistic frontiers — a period in which movies were exciting in ways that went beyond the hyped-up marketing of peanut-brained behemoths like The Dark Knight Rises. Kael worked her way up through the decades when European and Asian films were making their first serious inroads into American viewing habits; Ebert wrote about those films (and the later works they influenced) with an appreciation that was clearly shaped by Kael’s critical judgments. When American filmmaking narrowed, Ebert responded by widening his focus: no critic of comparable stature devoted as much space to foreign works. In May, when the studios usually rolled out their big summer blockbusters, Ebert was at the Cannes film festival, prospecting for works of promise and greatness, and sending dispatches back Stateside. One of the great pleasures of working as a wire news editor in the Nineties was the opportunity to read those dispatches, unedited, even though the paper I worked for would never use them.
Ebert was a man of sides. Apparently he used to be quite the drinker, as is to be expected when one’s colleagues include Mike Royko. He worked with exploitation king Russ Meyer on the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and reteamed with him for the never-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi. (Charles M. Young, who wrote a classic profile of the Pistols for Rolling Stone, paid a visit to Meyer’s hotel suite and was introduced by Meyer: “This is Roger Ebert. He’s really into tits.”) He was an unabashed science fiction fan, and had actually published stories in genre magazines before turning his attention to full-time reviewing. During the Nineties, when his critical writing truly bloomed, Ebert also showed himself to be a shrewd writer on politics. When the Gingrich gang was on its contemptible jihad against Bill Clinton, Ebert’s response to the campaign of humiliation against the president was as discerning as it was outraged. Perhaps for that reason, when the smoke cleared, Ebert has granted an interview with Clinton as well as a screening in the White House movie theater.
The love of argument overlapped with the instinct to teach and inform. He did DVD commentaries for six films, and an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging bunch they are: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Ozu’s Floating Weeds, Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about Robert Crumb, the cult fantasy Dark City, and, naturally, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Now, Citizen Kane is one of my favorite flicks — I’ve read biographies of Orson Welles, even Kael’s much-maligned essay “Raising Kane.” But I found the flow of information on Ebert’s Citizen Kane commentary so exhausting that I had to switch it off halfway through and go staggering into the kitchen for a couple of boilermakers. The man knew his onions.
The love of argument also led him to the Internet, that nonpareil domain for never-ending debates. Ebert dove into the Internet head first in a way that few other critics matched, and his website remains a model for all writers. When websites like Ain’t-It-Cool News were still being derided as watering holes for unhygienic dorks, Ebert invited AICN ubergeek Harry Knowles to share the balcony with him. Late in life, as recurring bouts of cancer sapped his strength, Ebert turned his site into a meeting place for movie writers from all over the world, giving Stateside readers a chance to see how Hollywood films affected their counterparts in India and elsewhere. The collapse of the newspapers and magazines that once hosted film critics (as well as reviewers in all other fields) may have saddened him, but Ebert knew the intellectual fizz of cultural commentary had moved to the digital realm, and he made himself comfortable there early on.
There are plenty of great film websites and lots of fine film writers on the Internet. I have my favorites; you have yours; tomorrow we’ll both find plenty more to follow. The collapse of credentialism has, overall, been a good thing for criticism. One need only look back to the days of Bosley Crowther, or some snobbish bit of snark in the New York Times, to recognize that pedigree and critical judgment don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand in the arts. But I’m old enough to remember when there were lots of magazines and newspapers worth following and arguing about, and I miss them. When I started to develop a serious interest in movies, I sought out critics in the scores of magazines glutting the news stands — The New Yorker, Clay Felker’s New York, Time, Saturday Review, The Atlantic, the Village Voice, and even TV Guide, which at one time gave space to both Judith Crist and Cleveland Amory — and the hunt introduced me to other writers and subjects along the way. Movies were worth reading about and arguing about, and even the most low-rent mass market magazine felt obligated to join the conversation. Ebert was the last great writer to cross that landscape, and the last to enjoy the kind of clout that came with the role. As Lester Bangs once said about Elvis Presley, we will never agree about anything the way we agreed about Roger Ebert. We really are moving into a new realm, and one of the compass points for getting around in it is now gone for good.