A year after he passed, we’re still feeling the loss of the concrete voice, the critic whose opinions mattered.
“Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas
A year ago last week marked the passing of Roger Ebert. Ebert, the torchlight, the innovator, the Hemingway of film criticism, the man who, in his final days, raged against the dying of the light to produce some of his greatest work, some of his most poignant thoughts, not just on the movies, but on art, poetry, politics, the universe; life itself. Cancer took his throat but he could not be silenced, his voice – through his pen – grew louder and louder, allowing him to become not just one of the greatest film writers ever, but one of the greatest writers ever, period.
Ebert’s voice grew through his pen. He became not just one of the greatest film writers ever, but one of the greatest writers ever
Consider this, which Ebert wrote in a review of Rust and Bone, the last film he inducted into his epic Great Movies series: “She goes into rehabilitation to be fitted with prosthetic legs and learn to walk on them. I’ve met some like her at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, walking down the corridor in a harness suspended from the ceiling. On one of my visits I met a beautiful young woman who virtually overnight lost both hands and both feet to one of those blood diseases. She had three small children, one under two. She’d passed through the first steps in recovery and we were in the same Hands Class together, exercising out upper bodies. Swinging her arms. Making angels. She did it as if she had hands.
“Her husband was there for her. You could see how he loved that woman. She was always upbeat, calling me Rog, being funny, snapping her gum. She told me she would learn to walk, drive a car and raise her children. How she brought herself to that position, I have no idea. What I didn’t see was what must have been her horror and despair as she first realised what was happening to her. That’s the stage we live through with Stephanie, bitter and depressed, as the physical therapists do what they do. At first she can hardly bring herself to open her eyes in the morning. In the prime of life, magnificent in her wet suit, queen of the whales, torn nearly in half.” The title of that piece is Weaker at the Broken Places. It tells you everything you need to know about Ebert.
More on film criticism: Finding the ‘point’ of film
His was essentially a method-acting style of writing, channelling himself into everything he wrote, writing reviews that were more akin to literature than they were to any traditional movie write-up. And, as we entered the age of click-bait and listicles, Ebert remained true to his passion. But that isn’t to say that he was embittered by the arrival of new media. On the contrary, he was an advocate of it, an old-school newspaper man keen to embrace online journalism, to move forward with the technological age rather than be left in its slipstream (his complete archives are available at rogerebert.com and his online blog entries often surpassed even his film criticism).
Ebert was an advocate of new media, an old-school newspaper man keen to embrace online journalism, to move forward
Despite this, however, a wind still blows through the Ebert-sized hole left in the industry. No longer is there one concrete voice, one certified master to turn to. There are many fine understudies – rogerebert.com’s new editor, Matt Zoller Seitz, for example, whose writing on film and, in particular, television, is some of the sharpest out there – but they remain imitators. With Ebert died the idea of the film critic as a household name (an idea more prevalent in the States than over here). A year on, I, and I suspect many others, still long to hear what Roger would’ve made of any given film (especially the divisive ones), for his opinion could greatly change a person’s outlook. His opinions had heart, soul, relevance, and that aforementioned method style only served to heighten them, to lift what he wrote into a greater realm of importance. His opinions mattered.
But it wasn’t all serious. Some of Ebert’s best lines are to be found in his reviews of the films he hated. He could trash a film like no other (for the finest example of this, see his review of North) and even dedicated anthologies to his writings on the worst of cinema, as well as on the best of it. He gave us lines like this: “to say this movie is scraping the barrel is an insult to barrels.” That could be a Woody Allen line. This is the level Ebert worked at.
Alas, though, all we can do is move on. There are great pieces being written about film everywhere, and, much as people love to say that the industry is dying, the fact remains that sites are popping up every day with great copy (*cough*, Screen Robot) and more and more talented writers (*cough*, me) are finding a platform on which to build off. It’s just that there isn’t an Ebert anymore. But then, there isn’t a Brando anymore, or a Hemingway. Life indeed goes on, a notion that Ebert himself acknowledged as he accepted his illness and continued to rage, rage against the dying of that light. A year on and his has not dimmed; a year on and he still shines.
A look at Ebert’s legacy: The death of film criticism most certainly isn’t near
Featured image: jmm (via Flickr)
Inset image: Will Perkins (via Flickr)