Roger Ebert: At the movies, for the movies

On 2 April 2013, the day Roger Ebert died, I left work earlier than usual. I wanted to write a small note on what the man meant to me, but it snowballed into a 5,700-word piece. I was almost done, but for the fact that I needed to write a concluding paragraph. It’s been 16 months since, and I am still struggling to find that last paragraph. For what it’s worth, sharing that old post here (it’s long, sappy and unedited at the moment but, for some reason, I don’t want to touch it again):

My only connection with Roger Ebert is rather tenuous and insignificant – we both graduated from the same university: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. However, his love for movies and his hometown, Urbana, did make the connection a tad concrete. Every year in the month of April, Roger Ebert visited his hometown to host a film festival, Ebertfest. Like countless other cinephiles, my movie experience was incomplete if I did not Google “Ebert <insert movie name>,” after watching a movie. It was not important what my friends or I thought about the movie, it was more important what he thought about it. And therefore, Ebertfest was a chance for me to see the man from close quarters whose exhilaration, disappointment, anger, and anguish, I had only experienced from his words. I wanted to know how he conducted himself in person, even if that just meant attending a brief Q&A section after the movie’s screening or attending one of the panel discussion at the film festival. How did he convey disappointment? By furrowing his eyebrows, or shaking his head dismissively? Was he as empathetic in real life as he was through his writing? Was he as enthusiastic about the movies as his never ending writing archives avowed? How could he? How could anyone?

But, in my two years at the University, I did not attend both the Ebertfests. The first time, I was buried under the academic work load, and the second time, my indolence forbade me. After all, it wasn’t a big deal, right? Roger Ebert wasn’t going anywhere. He would be here the next year, the year after that, and so will I. And if there’s something that pierces me the most at this moment is, why did I take permanency for granted? In fact, why does anyone? During my college days, my interest in attending Ebertfest was also borne out of the fact that at that time I was a contributor to a niche, quirky movie website named Passion for Cinema. I thought attending the film festival and then writing about it on the website would be quite interesting. Couple of months later at the university, beckoned by my own academic incompetency, I almost stopped writing on that website completely. I thought I would resume writing once I graduate and be settled somewhat – lofty notions that only a twenty-something-year-old can harbor – after all, it wasn’t a big deal, right? The website wasn’t going anywhere. It was there then, and would be there the year I graduate, and also the year after that, presumably the year when I will be ensconced into professional life and left with a lot of time to write. I graduated, and did find a space where I was ‘settled.’ I resumed writing on the website, but within a month the website shut down. Forever. Again, why did I take permanency for granted?

Coming back to now – March 2013, I had not yet attended even a single Ebertfest, and I thought this year would be a nice time to finally break the cycle of smugness. And so I decided on attending this year’s Ebertfest in the third week of April. Once my initial indolence was dissolved, the rest of the steps were surprisingly easy: applying for leave at work, buying festival passes, booking flight tickets. And this felt quaintly satisfying, because I was living up to the promise I had made to that lazy undergrad three years back, that one day I would come back to the campus and see Roger Ebert in person. On 2nd April, just fifteen days before the film festival, I chanced on Roger Ebert’s blog entry which began thus, “Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times,” what is this about? I wondered. As my eyes raced down that blogpost, more quickly than my comprehending abilities would have permitted, I gathered Ebert would now only review selected movies; his battle with cancer was beginning to take a toll on his prolificacy. It had to someday. But that did not signal anything ominous for Eberfest, right? His deteriorating health would not force him to skip this year’s Ebertfest, would it? And in an absurd moment of anger entwined with desperation, Roger Ebert ceased existing for me – his frail health, and its two close companions: uncertainty and vulnerability – it was all about me. He just couldn’t skip this year’s Ebertfest. All reasons, rationalities be damned. And then, the entry read, “Ebertfest, my annual film festival, celebrating its 15th year, will continue at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater and home town, April 17-21.” I sighed finally. Everything was all right. I would attend Ebertfest in fifteen days time; thankfully, I wasn’t late. A little more than two days later, Roger Ebert breathed his last in Chicago. Again, why did I take permanency for granted?

To understand where a man did end up, it’s important to understand where he began from. Roger Ebert’s parents were German Americans, Annabel and Walter H. Ebert. His father was an electrician at the University of Illinois. Even today, the schism between a white collared job and a blue collared job exists. It might not be as heightened in a relatively affluent American society as it is in an economically impoverished society as ours, but it exists. For an affluent society, more than the economical disparity, it’s the intellectual disparity that’s paramount and jabs those on the other side. It might also have a lot to do with, how we as a society equate educational degrees to accomplishments. I have experienced that at my own workplace – at times implicit, at times explicit, the disparity between engineers and technicians. Fresh out of college and having a limited practical engineering experience, I found myself struggling at work trying to make sense of how to operate an engineering device. So, I turned towards an elderly, experienced technician at my company, “I don’t quite understand how this thing works. Can you help me out?” And, he replied with a half-fructified smile, “But how can you not? You went to the university; you are the one with the degree – the engineer.” I am certain Walter H. Ebert would have grappled with similar emotions. There was a reason he encouraged his son’s dream to be a newspaperman, there was a reason he refused Roger watch his father doing any electrical wirings. There was a reason Ebert Sr. told his son this, “Boy, I don’t want you to become an electrician. I was working in the English Building today, and I saw those fellows with their feet up on their desks, smoking their pipes and reading their books. That’s the job for you.”

Although Roger Ebert did choose to be a newspaper man, he didn’t choose critiquing movies for a living, that life chose him. He wrote in his autobiography, Life Itself: A Memoir, “I’d written a few reviews for the Daily Illini, but being a movie critic was not my career goal. If I had one at all, it was to become a columnist like Royko….My master plan was to become an op-ed columnist and eventually, of course, a great and respected novelist.” It’s fascinating the serendipitous manner in which the life operates, sometimes to an immediate disappointment, sometimes to a distant contentment, which one can’t foresee or predict.

The longevity of someone’s career allows us the luxury to track back and shrink their oeuvre to one word, one idea. If someone asks me to describe Andrew Sarris’s career in one word, I might use the word ‘erudite,’ for Pauline Kael, the word ‘incisive’ immediately registers the mind, what word befits Ebert the best? I will settle with the word ‘dignified,’ even above qualifiers like ‘prolific,’ or ‘intelligent,’ or ‘insightful’. There are some people who just do things the way they are supposed to be done – the textbook way, the old fashioned way. Where arriving first is not accorded as much importance as arriving correct is. Where appropriateness is not merely personal, but also altruistic. Similarly, Roger Ebert didn’t merely stand with his colleagues, he also stood for them. In 2005, Rob Schneider, an American actor and screenwriter, lashed out at the Los Angeles Times’ movie critic, Patrick Goldstein, because the latter had written that Schneider’s movie, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, was ignored at the Oscars “because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for Best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic.” Schneider shot back at Goldstein, “Maybe you didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven’t invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter who’s Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers.” Ebert sprang to Goldstein’s defense, “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.” Roger Ebert didn’t have to say anything in Goldstein’s defense. But why did he? Probably because that was the right thing to do. Dignified people are often guided the most by appropriateness. Even if that means speaking for others, speaking out of turn, or speaking out of uncharacteristic anger.

Roger Ebert

At the Sundance film festival in 2002, an attendee asked of a Taiwanese-born American filmmaker, Justin Lin, why did he choose to make such an “empty and amoral for Asian-Americans” movie? Perplexed, the film-maker struggled to string a reply. But, the question angered Ebert and he stormed back at the attendee, “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people.” Once Ebert was done speaking, the hall, quite fittingly, burst into applause. Again, Ebert did not have to defend Lin. He was nobody then (he’s now associated with the “The Fast and the Furious” franchise). Except that it was the right thing to do. Similarly, in 2009, Ebert lashed out at Variety for sacking its film critic of 31 years, Todd McCarthy, “About Todd McCarthy I am not very worried. He’s one of a kind. I can think of no better candidate as the director of a major film festival. Or as a professor, or of course as a film critic. What I lament is the carelessness with which his 31 years of dedication were discarded. Oh, the paper cites its reasons…  If Variety no longer requires its chief film critic, it no longer requires me as a reader.” Such reverence for one’s colleagues, or just the profession in itself, is unheard of. Roger Ebert’s voices of support weren’t a calculated move. Sometimes you also become eminent by letting the significance of others shine through, and more importantly, by speaking for others when no one else would. Sometimes, not even the ones pinned down.

But what was it that made Ebert great? What was it that made Ebert Ebert? There were no dearth of newspapers in the era Ebert started writing in, and now, there’s no dearth of channels through which you can express your views: with a surge in number of magazines, websites, and more importantly, blogs, everyone’s writing on films these days, everyone is a film critic. So, why Ebert? I think the answer to that question lies in just one word. A word that’s often as lapped up as it is scoffed at, a word that’s as often associated with mediocrity as it is associated with egalitarianism: accessibility. Writing on films can be a tricky business – in no profession has the dichotomy between the academics and the plebeians been as profound as it is in writing on films. Academics, as well intentioned as they are, can at times risk alienating the cinephile from the film, through their thick jargon-laced prose, while on the other hand, some write-ups on movies are so dumbed down that they don’t even consider the movie as a piece of art, rather solely like a revenue generating commodity, thus concentrating not on the film itself, but its money minting potential, and thus reducing the appreciation of the film to a couple of generic, facile statements. Roger Ebert’s approach to film criticism did not kowtow to any of the two conventions. Whether he reviewed a Tarkovsky movie or a Micheal Bay movie, he was never above the audience or beneath them, he was always with them. And with the movies. Also, he did all that with a quality that’s almost non-existent in the entertainment industry; it barely existed then, it barely exists now: unflinching honesty. I remember watching David Lynch’s fascinating, mind bending, Mullholland Drive, five years back. The movie had been recommended to me so often at that time that I was compelled to know what the hype was about. The movie left me stunned, but there was also something fundamental that disturbed me once the movie was over – I did not understand the movie. Could I still love the movie in that case? Was I allowed to? And could I tell this to my fellow recommenders that I enjoyed the movie but failed to comprehend what it was about? Roger Ebert would have definitely got the movie, I told myself. After all he is…Ebert. What I read next left me both confused and awed in equal measure. His Mulholland Drive’s review’s last paragraph reads this, “This is a movie to surrender yourself to. If you require logic, see something else. “Mulholland Drive” works directly on the emotions, like music. Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in dreams, but they don’t connect in a way that makes sense – again, like dreams.” That last sentence made the twenty-year-old in me scream then, ‘So even he didn’t understand the movie, did he?’ But was that the point? And then the gravity of those three lines struck me. Not by their lucidity, but by their honesty. He could have easily weaved a generic review without referring to his actual movie experience, but he didn’t. He admitted that he surrendered to the movie, got defeated by it, and had a lot of fun in the process.

Three years later, I saw a movie at the theatre, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ fifteen minutes into the movie, I dozed off inadvertently. I might have woken up ten minutes later and found the movie had slipped out of my grasp. After that, the rest two hours were an exercise in futility to understand what the movie was about. But am sure even if I wouldn’t have dozed off for those ten minutes, I can’t say for certain I would have ‘got’ the movie. I remember coming out of the movie theatre, furious and shamed in equal measure that I couldn’t ‘get’ a movie I had been looking forward to for so long, so much so that I didn’t even want to share my movie watching experience with someone else. Expectantly, I dashed off to read Ebert’s review after the movie, “The screenplay, by Bridget O’ Connor and Peter Straughan, is not a model of clarity. I confess I was confused some of the time and lost at others times; the viewer needs to hold in mind a large number of characters, a large number of events, and an infinite number of possibilities.” Sometimes the only way to be unchained by vulnerability is to embrace it openly. No one could know this better than Roger Ebert.

The very connotation of the word criticism is often mired in and associated with negativity. And when it comes to movies, it instantly polarizes and pits two people against each other – the critic and the film-maker. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A critic is not someone who wields his pen or keyboard as an anvil, ready to strike and obliterate the creator at any and every given opportunity. The relationship between a film-maker and a good critic can ideally never be, and more importantly, should not be of a one that reeks of hostility. How can it be? When the job of a film critic is to find the truth in a piece of art. That truth which might even escape the film-maker. If at all anything, the film critic inches the film-maker closer to his own work. A film-maker owns the movie; a film critic internalizes the movie. Their ends are not dissimilar. Maybe Ebert and Martin Scorsese were both cognizant of this. “I saw a movie named I Call First, later to be retitled Who’s That Knocking at My Door. If I was sure of anything, it was that it was the work of a natural director. I wrote a review suggesting he would become “the American Fellini” and a few days later received a call from its director, Martin Scorsese,” wrote Ebert in his autobiography. Their camaraderie was well known, and so was their mutual admiration and respect for each other. It was possible, for a film-maker and critic to meet and recognize each other beyond the realms of cinema, because no job, no matter how influential or significant, can loom so large that it obliterates your own self.

The genesis of Ebert’s friendship with acclaimed German film-maker, Werner Herzog, re-affirms this, “I felt a connection with Herzog’s work that went beyond critic and film. We shared an obsession. He engaged with the infuriating relationship between the human will and the intractable universe.” However, Ebert was probably pragmatic enough to understand what he might be getting himself into, “I believe it’s unwise for a film critic to become friendly with those he writes about. I’m not unconcerned about with a “conflict of interest” so much as with my own inability to see a film at arm’s length. I don’t want to read a screenplay; I don’t want to see a rough cut.” Yet, Ebert found it difficult to ebb the curiosity of his own self at times. He wrote effusively about those two men, not just about their movies, but what shaped and defined their selves. Maybe Ebert knew movies and film-makers responsible for them were no different from each other. That showering praise on one was at times an automatic ramification of liking another. In 2007, Herzog dedicated his movie, Encounters at the End of the World, to Ebert. Ebert responded to that gesture by writing a heartfelt letter to the director. With Ebert no longer around, one constantly fears that film criticism might end up completely in a snark-age. In times when majority of film critics salivate at the prospect of reviewing an inept film – ripping apart a movie by puerile puns, and facile wordplay — and turning surprisingly timid when it comes to articulating the facets of an accomplished movie. In times of such cerebral and empathetic depravity, one would miss a film critic like Ebert, someone who was benign, someone with whom the tag ‘gentleman’ didn’t appear discordant, someone who just didn’t review a movie and moved on, but refused to be not enchanted by the film-maker himself. This world probably needs a healthy mix of gentlemen and boys. While boys’ flippancies are more immediate and bring us instant, shallow gratification, it’s the gentlemen’s perspicacity that lives with us longer. We want to hang around with boys, but silently strive to be gentlemen. The difference probably lies there.

Genuine film criticism has often found itself in a quagmire that coerces it to dole out binary choices: Yes, No. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Does the movie work or it doesn’t? There’s a fundamental problem with this line of thought: it clouds all discussion around the movie and instead concentrates on just the verdict itself. Sadly, the verdict becomes more important than the movie. Movies don’t bow to uniformity: majority of them consist of parts that dazzle us, and parts that disappoint us. And even that doesn’t depend entirely on the movie, but also on us. Connecting with a movie is a deeply individualistic exercise, and hence recommendations are not always fruitful. Very few movies are unambiguously good. How does then one assign a particular rating to a movie, and what does it mean? When will you decide to watch a movie? When it’s rated more than 3 out of 5? Or, rated more than 3.5 out of 5? What’s wrong with a rating of 2.5? What’s the difference between a movie that’s rated 4 stars and a movie that’s rated 3.5 stars? There are no easy answers to these questions. Maybe there are no answers to these questions. Because film criticism is complex, and it should be, because films are complex. And, ratings are wrong at a very fundamental level too – it transforms movie critics to gavel wielding cultural custodians, or, demi gods. And, really how fair is to assign ratings to a movie — an exercise that doesn’t require any profound mental faculty, or worse, substantial time – when, on the contrary, movie making is a thunderously nuanced and complex process. At the very least, a film review should respect the film-making process, irrespective of its merit.

If something that did taint Ebert’s oeuvre, it was this line of thought. In 1986, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune’s film critic, began hosting a weekly television show, At the Movies. Prior to that they had both hosted a similar television show, Sneak Previews, that ran on air from 1975-1982, but it was really their show At the Movies (1986-1999) that would become a defining point in their careers. On At the Movies, both film critics talked about the weekly releases, fiercely debated the various movies’ merits and demerits, and at the end, came up with a verdict – thumbs up or thumbs down. Their thumbs up became so popular that they even trademarked the phrase, “two thumbs up.” At the Movies was one of the first television shows of its kind – a show about the movies that steered away from gossip, star obeisance, and shallow tabloidesque discourse.

But television as a medium can seldom be sagacious. As compared to print media, television doesn’t strive for longevity but immediacy. Things have to keep happening all the time; a lull is neither allowed nor expected. Fitting analyses of movie in that paradigm is a discomfiting thought in itself. The structure of At the Movies didn’t permit for an exhaustive analysis, in fact forget exhaustive, when on an average each critic got only two minutes to speak on the movie and even those two minutes consisted of interruption by the other speaker, movie clips, brief plot overview, the most they could do was touch fleetingly on the movies in contention. It was a tough task. But Siskel and Ebert didn’t help themselves either. Almost everything for public consumption has a takeaway – be it movies, reviews, essays, analyses. We gravitate towards those takeaways which we can consume easily. Despite their passionate discourses on the movie, the prime takeaway of At the Movies was unequivocally simplistic, and obnoxiously dumbed-down: thumbs up or thumbs down. Suddenly everything began looking easy. Analyses – qualitative hows and whys – transformed to digital verdicts – what. Whenever Ebert’s virtues as a film critic are invoked, it should always be done with being cognizant of the fact that he did to an extent play a part in watering down and trivializing film criticism. But then, had there been no At the Movies, it is highly doubtful that Ebert would have been bestowed with the same stardom. Television catapulted him to almost every household in the US.

But then, was At the Movies indisputably bad? A blanket statement like this would not only be unfair but also untrue. To realize what At the Movies achieved, you have to consider this: the year is late 80s or early 90s, the indie movement in the US (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a movie that ushered in the American indie movement was released in 1989) is in an amorphous state. Now, consider a set of the target audience – cinephiles in their late teens or early 20s; a group that’s just getting introduced to a cinema of different variety – not in New York, not in LA, not in any of the big cities that has access to a vibrant art or cinema culture, but kids in suburban America. Ebert and Siskel brought them movies which they would have never heard of, and hence would have never sought out. Both of them talked about foreign movies, cult movies, lesser talked about documentaries – in particular, a 9.5 hour documentary on the holocaust, Shoah, and a wonderfully poignant documentary chronicling the lives of two African-American kids striving to make it big in NBA, Hoop Dreams – and helped promote a consummate cinema culture in the US. Had it not been for Ebert’s relentless championing of Hoop Dreams, I would have never sought the movie out. And it would have been entirely my loss. In fact, Hoop Dreams was released in 1994, and Ebert rated it the best movie of the year – above well acclaimed movies such as Pulp Fiction, Three Colors Trilogy, Forrest Gump, and later also called it the best movie of the 90s. Buoyed by Ebert’s enthusiastic approval, the movie enjoyed a successful run at the box-office and continued earning revenues through the video rentals. The movie’s success changed the lives of its two impoverished protagonists forever. These are not insignificant achievements in any book, by any yardstick.

At the Movies also achieved something else, although at a subliminal level: it was okay to disagree; it was okay to have an opinion. And more important, it was important to have an opinion, because sometimes your opinion told more about you than about the movie you were defending, and most important, that movies were important and worthwhile to have passionate discourses over.

A writer can lose his voice, yet not lose his ability to communicate. Ebert lost his voice sometime in 2006. His battle with cancer over the last decade included multiple surgeries, rehabilitation and finally culminated in him being robbed of the power of speech. Cancer had reduced to Ebert to someone whose physical traits began reflecting the footprints of a life debilitating disease. The personal slowly began overtaking the professional. Ebert essentially had two options at his disposal then – to separate his personal life from professional life, continue fighting against the cancer in a personal, more recluse manner, and maintain a facade that everything was all right (an option, his friend and colleague, Gene Siskel chose); or, make his battle with cancer public, accept his inevitable bodily frailties, and enmesh his professional life with his personal life. Ebert chose the latter.

Our vulnerabilities are so often intricately linked with shame. Even the ones we don’t have any control over or say in. The most logical step in that case is to shy away from those vulnerabilities, pretending they don’t exist. Just as he didn’t have to write that he didn’t understand some of the byzantine plot points of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The marks of Ebert’s battle with cancer were just not internal, they were also external – thyroid cancer had left his lower jaw drooping, as if he no longer had a right to possess a jaw, and the remnant jaw stuck out from his other facial features like an aberration, or worse, like a pity. Then, in February 2010, Esquire published an essay on him, Roger Ebert: The Essential Man, a long, well-written profile masquerading like an eulogy. The essay had a lingering, impending doom to it – as if trying to convince us that Roger Ebert’s death was more imminent than it actually was. And Esquire’s cover was graced by Roger Ebert’s face – his drooping lower jaw, his scooped up lips, and his identity famished cheek. Was this right? It almost felt like milking someone’s physical frailty for a story. It seemed as if they wanted the world to recognize Roger Ebert not for who he was, but for what he had become. Roger Ebert wrote about Esquire’s essay on his blog; he wasn’t disappointed with the essay, he said he knew what he was getting into when he acquiesced that an essay be written on his present physical state. However, one line in the essay struck him more than anything else, “Roger Ebert is dying in increments, and he’s aware of it.” To which Ebert commented, “Well, we’re all dying in increments. I don’t mind people knowing what I look like, but I don’t want them thinking I’m dying.”

In March 2010, Ebert was asked on Oprah’s show whether he would want to go for one more surgery. He moved his left hand dismissively up in the air indicating a “No,” and then his automated voice, Alex, blared from his laptop, “No more surgery for me. I am not going to talk or eat or drink again. So, the surgery would only be to patch my face back together. I don’t want to go through that. This is the way I look and my life is happy and productive. So why mind about surgery? People ask if I mind about Esquire running that photograph looking like this [the camera cuts to a picture that Esquire used]. I don’t mind it at all. Nobody looks perfect. We have to find peace with the way we look and get on with life.” Cancer did pin Roger Ebert down – snatched his voice, distorted his face, made him frail, and ultimately took his life. But Cancer could never induce shame in him. Nothing, no one could.

Roger Ebert’s propensity to evolve and accommodate is as fascinating as humbling. For a career that spanned almost half a century, he saw technology taking seismic leaps, and he just didn’t watch everything from the sidelines; he took an active part. From 1967 to 2013, the world transitioned from the typewriter to personal computer to laptops to tablets. Writers are generally known for being averse to technology, but Roger Ebert never undermined or ignored its importance. He embraced technology in all its expansiveness. His editor at the Chicago Sun Times told the Time magazine, Ebert’s enthusiasm for technology, “He was the first person I knew to advocate for computer technology long before it was ever in the newsroom. He’d gone out and bought himself a computer. He dragged our newsroom kicking and screaming into that age. He wanted to file stories from the Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere electronically long before we were ever set up for it and insisted that we get an AOL account so that he could e-mail us stories.”

When Cancer forbade him to speak, he turned to blogging and twitter. But he approached both the mediums not with the twitchiness of an apprentice but with the serenity of a master. But unlike most celebrities, he never milked Twitter. He never used it solely like a promotional vehicle or like a broadcasting microphone; his stint on twitter comprised all hues: airing one’s opinion, seeking out others’, indulging in debates – sometimes fiery, and what had now come to be his signature style, recognizing the talent in others. He wrote about Twitter in his online journal, “I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.” In those lines, remain hidden something simple, something fundamental. Of all the accusations you could find to hurl at Ebert, you could never call him a snob or an elitist. He reveled in enjoying and celebrating the ordinary, connecting with people.

His online journal was a repository of poignant cogitations: an online space that had increasingly become a solace for Roger Ebert. A space he began frequenting regularly, as if this was his own little way of silently rebelling against the disease. A space that allowed Ebert to ruminate not just on movies, but creationism, spirituality, sexuality, family, frailty, life, and most important, death.

An occupation can never be good or bad just in itself, it’s some people who disrepute the profession, not the profession itself. An oft mentioned disparaging quote about the critics is one by Brendan Behan, an Irish writer, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” This accusation against critics of not creating anything is not only archaic, but also smacks of ignorance. Critics are not venom spewing automatons, a good piece of criticism is a creative output in itself. Have there been inept critics? Definitely. But have there been inept directors, screenplay writers, editors, sound designers? Yes, without a doubt. But has their occupation been called into question just on the basis of ineptness of a few or questioned because the way we perceive that occupation doesn’t suit our definition of what an occupation should be? If not, then why this exception with film criticism? “I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets,” Pauline Kael said this in 1963. She would be both sad and baffled to know that even 50 years later film criticism is still struggling to survive, still struggling to hope that it’s not derided at every opportunity, at every corner. And that’s why someone like Roger Ebert was important, because he accorded the profession a certain reverence it so deserved, something that had been frequently and unfairly denied to it.

[Concluding paragraph]


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