Roger Ebert, critic of critics, set high bar for us all

05:00 AM, Apr 04, 2013

Roger Ebert died Thursday after battling cancer. He was 70. Ethan Miller, Getty Images/


Written By by By Bill Goodykoontz, Gannett Chief Film Critic

I can’t tell you how many times someone has called or e-mailed to disagree with one of my movie reviews and said, “Well, Roger Ebert liked it.”

Now, in most cases, no critic wants to be compared with anyone else. We are fiercely independent, cannot be swayed by anyone else, etc.

But seriously, who are we kidding? Roger Ebert, who died Thursday at 70, was THE movie critic. Of course my reviews were going to be compared with his. So were everyone else’s. Such was Ebert’s influence, his power and his fame. A lot of us review movies. But Ebert is the critic whose opinion everyone sought.

If it weren’t for Ebert, I wouldn’t be a movie critic. Before I started watching Ebert, I didn’t even know there WERE movie critics.

And I’m not the only one. For those of my generation, Ebert defined movie criticism. He was THE GUY.

We all have our own distinctive voices, our own way of doing things. But if we’re honest, there’s not one critic who, when evaluating the quality of a movie, doesn’t have an image in mind of sitting in the balcony with Ebert, arguing the film’s merits on a television show.

That’s the seat the late Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel occupied for so long, of course, on their show Siskel & Ebert. It is no exaggeration to say that the two of them shaped modern film criticism, as much or more than even Ebert’s mentor, the great Pauline Kael, did.

Ebert was combative on television; along with his insight, his arguments with Siskel are what made the whole enterprise worth watching. He won a Pulitzer Prize, something he enjoyed lording over Siskel, probably only partly in jest. Some serious film scholars have argued that the two men cheapened real criticism with their thumbs-up, thumbs-down style. But those people weren’t really listening to what Ebert had to say.

Or reading what he wrote. Funny as he could be as a scold on TV, Ebert was at his best in print and, later, even better, online. (See Pulitzer, above.) Ebert was critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years. Though he certainly knew about film theory, Ebert’s great gift was to write in a style as conversational as the one he used on TV.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Many times, after finishing a review in which I strangled a group of sentences into some semblance of coherence and sent it along its way, I’d click on Ebert’s review and, with equal parts dismay and admiration, read his clear-headed, straightforward words.

How the hell did he do that?

I don’t know, but he did it a lot, and he did it well.

Cancer would eventually rob Ebert of both his ability to eat and his speaking voice. But not his real voice. He found that online, in his blog, where unlimited space and subject matter allowed him to really take off, not just on film but on life, including his own. And for those of us who love online journalism, this was at least as big an inspiration as his movie reviews had been a generation before.

Great. Here’s something else he does better than the rest of us.

How many people have that kind of influence? How many people make us think, make us talk, make us argue about something that on the surface may seem trivial but, for those who are willing to dive deeper, reveals much about our lives, our culture, ourselves?

Very few. But Roger Ebert was one of them. To say he will be missed is trite and kind of stupid. I wish he was around to say it better.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett. Read his blog at goodyblog.azcentral.com. For movie stories, trailers and more go to movies.azcentral.com. Twitter: @goodyk.