For a future film critic coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, there were two dominant voices vying for space in one’s head – first to be imitated and then, if one had any hope of being original, to be banished.
It’s still a struggle to stop wanting to channel the flinty, knowing voice with which Pauline Kael launched her weekly mash notes or eviscerations in The New Yorker. But it’s the temperament of Roger Ebert – who died Thursday at the age of 70 – that remains his most profound legacy. He made deserved history as the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, finally making a space for the “seventh art” alongside classical music, ballet and theater. As the anti-Kael, his writing was accessible, un-bullying and, above all, empowering. In his reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and later on “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies,” he made all his readers and viewers feel that they, too, could be film critics — not just because they had a thumb that could go up or down, but because his voice was their voice — not the pronouncements of an Olympian, gimlet-eyed intellectual.
If Ebert’s style reflected his meat-and-potatoes Midwestern roots, his temperament was floridly, unapologetically expansive, his passion for all things cinematic meshing inextricably with an abiding compassion and humanism. As technological changes threatened to make his career obsolete – as all those would-be Siskels and Eberts started writing their own reviews on Facebook and Twitter – Ebert didn’t waste time inveighing against the means of his extinction. Instead he embraced them, becoming a prolific, thoughtful, indomitable presence on the Web, churning out essays, ephemera, political diatribes – and, yes, movie reviews – with the energy and enthusiasm of a Millennial who’d just gotten his first iPhone.
Earlier today, a colleague asked me if much had changed since I began writing film reviews 20 years ago. I said no — there are still wonderful movies being made that I can’t wait to tell people about. But now, I’d say yes: Roger Ebert isn’t around anymore to fall in love with a movie, shout it from the rooftops and show the rest of us how it’s done.