Film and Television Features

Roger Ebert: 1942-2013

While the debate about the validity of critics in a digital age rages on, it's notable that at no point did anyone argue against the value of Roger Ebert's work, so well-respected was the man's opinions, and the quality of his writing.

Understandably his passing away at the end of last week, following a decade-long battle with cancer (which he often wrote about with as much wit and insight as he put in his film reviews), has inspired many tributes around the web already, but considering the colossal nature of his influence on practically every film critic going (while his work had more of an impact with American audiences, particularly during the early days of the internet which is when I came to take my formative steps into film appreciation, and so I can't claim to have read too much of his work before coming across it at University, I do have fond memories of, as a teen, repeatedly watching a VHS copy of Russ Meyer's trashterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which Ebert scripted, so I'd like to think that that's how he played a key part in my film education), we here at No Ripcord thought it would be fitting to share our thoughts on his work.

Mark Davison - Film and TV Editor

I can vividly recall the summer of 1999, mostly because it marked the release of the first Star Wars prequel. I was seven years old and my tiny little brain was exploding with fever dreams of a brand-new galaxy far, far away. I’d wake up every morning to watch the channel 7 news with my mother, hoping to catch a glimpse of some Star Wars footage -- surely, this would be a national news event. However, one particular morning I had awoken to the news that the first trailer had already been shown on TV the night before.

During the broadcast, they flashed to an image of a rather rotund, white-haired man who appeared less than hyped for the reemergence of Sith warriors and bleep-blooping droids. This was indeed my first encounter with Roger Ebert, and really the entire world of film criticism for that matter. In my naive, undeveloped brain, it was completely incomprehensible that a human being could be anything less than bat-shit excited for new Star Wars movies -- and I sort of resented him for his calm, skeptical demeanor. Of course, as time went on, I not only realized how completely appropriate his reaction was (although, his review of the film was more positive-leaning), but how amazingly perceptive he was of Hollywood-hype. I think in any form of criticism, an acute, yet open-minded brand of skepticism is your greatest asset -- and Roger Ebert was extremely sensitive to that. Ultimately, It kept his reviews honest -- untethered to the supposed innate “cool factor” of popular industry trends, yet still brimming over with an utterly infectious enthusiasm and passionate love for the movie-going experience. Indeed, there really will never be another critic quite as evidently driven by the utmost love and respect for cinema as Roger Ebert.

Andrew Ciraulo

Roger Ebert will always be known as the one instantly likable, laudable, and identifiable man in the industry with his work ethic, inimitable insight, and "relative, not absolute" approach to reviews - both in-print for The Chicago Sun-Times (for over forty years!) and on-air, At the Movies, with the patented "thumbs up." But in the Midwestern United States, his presence was cherished; as I mentioned in a personal piece on Satoshi Kon's anime series Paranoia Agent in 2010, the expansive Madison rental store Four Star Video Heaven immortalized his 1995 visit with the "Four stars to Four Star!" accolade on all its rental cases and a banner behind the counter.

Since my foray into serious film studies in college, my former professors and I have sometimes minimized Ebert's assessments. And while we've had our disagreements (on the topic of video games as art, for example), it's never prevented me from returning to his writing time and again with reverence. Most recently I've explored the anime films of Studio Ghibli (that Ebert always championed), and I was drawn to his informal yet emotional look at Miyazaki's masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro. "Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile," he wrote, concluding, "(the film) depends on situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need." Ebert lived movies, and his soft-spoken thoughtfulness resonated with audiences of all ages, which made him a household name. And now, an everlasting one.

Grant Phipps

I am not a film critic. Most 'reviews' that I've written tend to lean heavily on elaborate puns or pie charts. Roger Ebert was a film critic. His reviews and criticism helped define and popularise the form and for the best part of 5 decades he was a fiercely passionate advocate for quality cinema in whatever form it chose to take. If you want a measure of how widely his work was read and respected, seek out pretty much any external review of any film on imdb or Wikipedia, and note how Ebert's name is invariably first on the list. His work is so rich and accessible, you often don't need to read much further.

Joe Gastineau

It almost seems stupid to write this so seriously, no jokes, as Roger Ebert valued a good joke as much as anyone I know, but at the same time, serious things sometimes call for seriousness, so I'll begin: If it weren't for Roger Ebert, I probably never would have cared about film the way that I do. He was the first critic that I read regularly, and his Great Movies served as a suggestion box for stuff to get my brother to bring home when he worked at a Hollywood Video store. As I got more and more into movies, I began to read Ebert less; his top concern was never the formal aesthetics of cinema, so at one point I thought myself "above" him, but having matured for real now (at least in part) instead of just thinking I have, I find myself coming back to his writing. With every review, he was trying to answer the question of what this film tells us about life, what we can gain from watching it, and it's precisely this reason that he was so great. His prose was elegant, and he was always, always honest; he had a way of saying things so they just made sense. I can barely find a review that doesn't contain a little nugget of wisdom, at once relevant to the film and insightful for life as well. It's such an accessible form, one with no pretensions, and for that reason, I credit Ebert with teaching me to care enough to think critically. He also championed a ton of films, from Hoop Dreams to Bonnie and Clyde and independents and foreigns that would never have been so successful without him, and he had no qualms about why he disliked Blue Velvet or in putting The Tree of Life (and almost Synechdoche, New York) in his ten greatest films of all time list for last year's Sight and Sound Poll. Even when you disagreed with him, every word made sense. More than anyone, he made it easy to agree to disagree, and he forced you to articulate your disagreement just because he was always so confident.

But my favorite thing about Ebert isn't even his way of making the movies make sense, his way of making them important. It was the way he looked at life. His best writings, in my opinion, will always be his blog entries, at once funny, poignant, and sad. It's appropriate, because my admiration for Ebert goes far beyond the cinema. He made it cool to be a critical thinker, he made me want to be a critical thinker, to close out the SparkNotes window and read the book, to see films as art instead of entertainment, to find not just pleasure in music, but also truth. The cinema was a vehicle for understanding life for Ebert, and as good as he was at movies, he was even better at life. I'd like to direct attention to this piece that he wrote for Salon, which contains one paragraph that simply and beautifully comes as close to "the meaning of life" as anything ever could. I'd also like to quote a fellow film critic, Calum Marsh, who ended his obituary saying that Ebert "wasn’t just a movie expert—he was a life expert. We should all be so lucky." If only we could be.

Forrest Cardamenis

Two TV shows running on public television were seminal in shaping the young Alan Shulman's mind, for whatever that's worth. One was Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which forever killed my already wavering belief in God (and this the year of my Bar Mitzvah, over before it began), and the second was Sneak Previews, later retitled Siskel & Ebert. I lived down the street from a popular cinema, and was a regular attendee of Saturday afternoon screenings since I was a small child. What a glorious feeling to realize that not only did someone share the same delirious thrill you had looking up in awe at those colossal images, but that there were very good reasons for your excitement. You could get a secondary rush by talking about the movie, figuring out why you liked it. This came in handy for the third seminal media event of my early adolescence - the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey to theaters across the country. I later learned that Roger shared my passion for the film and its unparalleled cinematic grandeur. His passion sometimes got the best of him of course, as when he gave Full Metal Jacket a thumbs down on the same show he recommended Benji the Hunted. Kubrick had let him down and he was biting back. He also widely missed the point of Blue Velvet, which offended his sensibilities with its, at that time, shocking subject matter. But on the other hand he was not afraid to champion slight movies that were simply enjoyable to watch. He could bring great intellectual weight to bear but didn't throw that weight around. He never forgot that we go to the movies for the sheer joy it can bring and he was grateful to any film that delivered on this promise. I try to follow his model when writing reviews for all you Noripcorders, it's as simple as that. I miss him already.

Alan Shulman