Roger Ebert died four years ago this week, after waging a long and harrowing battle with cancer. He was 70. He made an excellent film documenting his struggle called Life Itself, in which his courage, determination, and good humor are on ample display, despite being disfigured by surgery, and having to make innumerable concessions to the disease. He continued to work at that which he loved, writing about movies, under very difficult circumstances, until the end.
He wrote and talked about movies for over 45 years, mostly for the Chicago Sun Times, and was the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His early television series on P.B.S. with crosstown rival Gene Siskel, “Sneak Previews”, became the highest rated shown ever on that network, and the “thumbs up or down” verdict they offered became a standard which has endured through the decades. This week, Netflix introduced it to their site.
The thing I liked most about Ebert’s writing was that he had not a molecule of the “critic’s disease” that seems to require most people to say something gratuitously negative about some part of the work, so as to show how smart they are. Or, perhaps, include obscure references that only a film historian would know or care about and which contribute little to the task at hand.
He wrote beautifully and his love of movies came through clearly. He was unpretentious in his tastes, and wrote from the point of view of the consumer of film, i.e. someone who had paid their money in the hopes of being entertained and engaged, and who was favorably disposed to the product by default.
Beyond that, his writing was extremely perceptive, and sometimes even prophetic. He helped you understand things you may not have noticed or were unable to articulate, and he whetted your appetite for seeing or re-seeing the movie he was writing about.
When Mike Leigh made his first movie in 1972, “Bleak Moments”, Ebert saw it and wrote,
I’ve never heard of Mike Leigh or his actors before. I don’t know where they came from, or what pools of human experience they were able to draw from. And I suspect that the sheer intensity of “Bleak Moments” may prevent it from getting a wide audience. Indeed, this particular story could never have been told in such a way as to appeal to everybody.
It is the task of film festivals to find films like this and give them a showing, so that they can survive and prevail. The 1972 Chicago festival has been filled with movies worth seeing and remembering. But if it had given us only “Bleak Moments,” it would have sufficiently exercised its mission.
What’s interesting to me about this is that Leigh did not make another movie for 17 years (he created screenplays only after improvising scenes with his cast, so he never had one to sell), but Ebert’s comments were correct, and correctly generous to an unknown talent. He makes you want to go find this movie and watch it, and to read more about Mike Leigh’s movies, an exercise that will certainly reward your effort.
If you want a break from current events or are bored with your regular reading diet, I recommend visiting this site, and choosing a movie you like, or perhaps one you never heard of, and reading what Ebert had to say about it. You’ll learn something and enjoy the time spent – what more could you ask from a critic?