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Roger Ebert, R.I.P. (NRO April 5, 2013)

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I was shocked to hear last night of Roger Ebert’s death. This was partly because only yesterday I read a blog post, written by him on Tuesday, in which he announced that he was about to take a “leave of presence” from his fearsome schedule of film reviews (more than 200 in 2012) but was relaunching his website,

But I was shocked also because, like many of those who had the good fortune to encounter Roger Ebert in life, on the page, or on screen, I had somehow come to believe that he would always be there. He had not only survived a brutal cancer, he had kept on reviewing at a punishing pace even when that cancer had taken away his jaw and his ability to speak. It therefore seemed logical, as well as comforting, to believe that Ebert had won, thanks to his astonishing courage, force of will, and desire to write, and that he would simply keep going with work of undiminished quality for yet more decades.

Sadly, it is not to be. And as I myself begin to miss him, I suspect that Roger Ebert will be more missed than any journalist in America of his generation, and of the generations that have come after.

Not only was Ebert probably the most widely read critic in the history of film and film writing, he had a unique, intimate relationship with tens of millions of people, many of whom, having read him since adolescence, had fallen in love with his quiet, honest, educated, and unpretentious voice and felt that they knew him.

Because Ebert had reviewed films on TV as well as written about them for the papers, because most of his reviews had a conversational tone (which is another reason why so many readers felt he was speaking directly to them), and perhaps because he had been around for so long, there were sophisticates who didn’t take Ebert as seriously as they did some of the critics for New York–based papers and magazines.

This was a misjudgment — a jejune error of the kind that Ebert himself would never make. For Roger Ebert was at least as smart and knowledgeable as his supposedly more highbrow rivals. But he was also a confident, old-fashioned democratic intellectual who believed in the intelligence of the mass moviegoing audience and in the intelligence of a mass readership, and was utterly unmoved by snobbery of any kind.

That confidence, and that desire to communicate his love and understanding of film to the widest possible audience, meant there was no place in Ebert’s writing for obscurity or name-dropping. He was never flashy. And he was never a show-off (though he had much to show off about, most obviously his encyclopedic knowledge of film history). Yet he was steeped in literature and deeply engaged with the rest of the culture, and the fruits of all that reading and listening and talking and watching consistently enriched and leavened his film criticism.

Whenever I go back and look up a film from the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s in the archive of his Chicago Sun-Times reviews (which I do often, as you really can’t do better for thoughtful, well-written, and reliably non-crazy summaries of films you are thinking of seeing or cannot remember), I am struck by how humane and decent and commonsensical his opinions usually were.

Some of our most lauded critics, in particular those who took after Pauline Kael, have had an adolescent weakness for gratuitous violence and cruelty. Not Ebert. Moreover, even when other critics were lavishing praise on filmmakers whose incompetence and pretentiousness looked liked profundity, he kept his head and heart about him.

Unlike, say, Andrew Sarris, a charming and clever critic whose “auteurist” criticism revealed a near-total ignorance of how movies are actually made, Ebert recognized the importance of the screenwriter and the editor in Hollywood films. (He himself had penned the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Vixens.)

I am sad to say that I met Roger only a handful of times. He was far friendlier than a critic and journalist of his fame and distinction — indeed, than a national treasure — had any need to be. He and his beautiful wife, Chaz, were charming and funny and wonderfully tolerant of those younger and less-experienced critics, like myself, rendered febrile by the glamour and excitement of their first Cannes or Toronto film festival.

Now as I recall the man and his work, all I can think about is the astonishing bravery with which he met the physical challenges of his last decade, how he overcame pain and mutilation that would cripple most people with despair, in order to continue his nearly five decades of engagement with the movies and his readers. Later I will face the fact of his loss, the shocking reality that no new Ebert reviews will ever be added to that huge trove of educated, thoughtful, heartfelt opinion, the feeling of emptiness that comes with the final silencing of a journalistic voice that in its intimate way was as important and influential as any in American history.