Mark McConaghy on the Passing of Noted Film Critic Roger Ebert.
Film critic and writer Roger Ebert has died. Thousands of people have expressed their sorrow on twitter, facebook, blogs, and in print. The outpouring has come from famous filmmakers and powerful politicians to everyday people, all of whom were touched in some way by Ebert’s writing. I too count myself as one among the many thousands who grieve this week. The greatest tribute we could pay to Ebert in the time of his passing is to write- not only about what his work gave us, but about the movies we love, the ideas we cherish, about what makes us passionate and alive.
For generations of newspaper and, later, online readers, Roger Ebert told us how vital and important movies are. Within one of Ebert’s reviews the entire magic of a film, and thus of the art form itself, could be laid bare. Ebert’s criticism made us understand analytically what films make us feel intuitively: their ability to open up imaginative horizons, to delight and thrill, to provide us the sensuous delight of the moving image while also focusing our attention on critical moral problems.
To read an Ebert review was a film education wrapped in simple, elegant prose. Ebert was not an academic, yet he was intellectually rigorous. He was not a tenured professor, yet he educated thousands of students. He was, above all else, a newspaperman, a hard-working reporter who wrote about a movie as if it was a good news story waiting to be told: what the movie was about, how did it function, what its meanings and strengths were, and how it fit into our current times.
As film criticism within universities became, from the 1970s onward, an academic discipline in itself, with its own specialized vocabulary, its own competing theoretical paradigms, its own “field” and all the elitism that can often mar such a critical project, Ebert managed to keep his writing accessible, fresh, and vital. To read an Ebert review was to cut to the core of a film and how it operated. He never let us forget that a film entertains, moves, and educates us all at the same time, but that it has to do the first of these in order to accomplish the next two.
Academics in the humanities, and particularly those writing on aesthetic matters, should turn to Roger Ebert as a model of clear, concise rhetoric, a kind of critical discourse that can actually reach people as oppose to alienate them via elitist jargon. For Ebert’s brand of populist rigor opened up, rather than closed down, film criticism for people, and that is a gift we must never forget.
And through it all, a deeply human voice emerged from behind his critical shield: one that was funny, acerbic, even biting at times, but never mean-spirited. He was generous to bad films when he saw some good in them, but was never one to reduce the standards we should have for evaluating great art. His was a voice that was sophisticated without being pretentious, one which insisted that values such as justice and human dignity be part of the way we think about film and, by extension, the way we think about ourselves.
I often felt Ebert was too generous to popular Hollywood films, but I now understand a lesson that his reviews often tacitly communicated: that popular culture deserves our attention, even our appreciation, for there is such a thing as having fun, of being pleasantly diverted, as a necessary respite from the intensity of our daily lives. And in so much as it is in the zone of popular media that most people live their cultural lives, we owe it to ourselves to take such media forms seriously, from video games to young adult novels to big budget Hollywood cinema.
As Ebert became older, he faced multiple health crises and the specter of his own mortality, doing so with a dignity that was stunning in its quiet courage. Multiple treatments for thyroid cancer left Ebert gaunt and wiry, virtually unrecognizable from the portly film nerd turned prominent writer we had all known. Multiple surgeries left him without a jaw, rendering him unable to speak, and making it very difficult for him to take in food and water. And here we need to think of how important our voice is in our everyday lives- as we talk with our loved ones, banter with our friends, pour over our opinions about hockey games, movies, and the latest gossip of our lives.
How would we cope without the use of our voice?
Ebert did not wallow in suffering. Instead, he did what he had always done: he wrote. And through that he found peace. As Ebert so beautifully put it in 2010: “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was…All is well. I am as I should be.”
As writers- no, as people- we should strive to be like Roger Ebert. To find what we love, to build it up through our labor, to share it with others, and to communicate even in the most trying of times. In that way, we can leave the world with a body of work whose central message is diligence, passionate joy, and love.
I grieve today for the loss of this deeply human voice. We need you Roger, now more than ever. But we’ve learned from you and we won’t let you down: we will become the next generation to continue on the collective project, the great human adventure, promoting joy and justice in our criticism, in our writing, in our everyday lives.
We will not forget what you’ve taught us. We are as we should be.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.