There was much to admire about the legendary film critic -- his taste, his generosity to friends and strangers (especially writers who basked in his encouragement), and his tireless work ethic, even as his health deteriorated and robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, and speak. Most of all, there was that indomitable voice, the one so certain of the rightness of its opinions (about movies, religion, politics, rice cookers, London walking trips, and so much else), the one that remained optimistic about its own future even as recently as two days before he died at age 70.
But the one thing Roger had that no other critic (save his longtime TV partner Gene Siskel, who died in 1999) ever had or ever will have again is the ear of a mass audience. Having brought intelligent film criticism to TV, Siskel and Ebert once wielded the most powerful thumbs in showbiz. By the time he died on April 4, however, Ebert's thumbs-up or thumbs-down had long since ceased to exert the same power, He and Siskel made film reviewing look (deceptively) like something anybody could do. Popularizing film reviewing led ultimately to the devaluing of the profession at newspapers and magazines and the flooding of the Internet with cheap critical opinion, to the point where Ebert was treated as just another voice howling in the wilderness. Whether or not he'd intended to be, Ebert was the architect of the unmaking of the world he'd built.
It's impossible to imagine now that a newspaper would hire a 24-year-old movie critic (as the Chicago Sun-Times did in 1967) and let him stay on the job for 46 years. Ebert told me last year that he was fortunate to have that job fall in his lap, though he was also fortunate enough to come along at a time when both movies and movie criticism were undergoing their own revolutions. Critics like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Manny Farber (all exemplars to Ebert, the way he would be for subsequent generations of reviewers) were pushing the envelope to enlarge the way people wrote and spoke about movies, but they were doing so in response to the works of American and foreign directors (from Bergman to Scorsese) who were expanding the creative possibilities of film. Today, when moviemakers seem so much more timid and less ambitious, it seems less likely that a Kael or Sarris or Ebert will arise to invent a new way to talk about movies.
Ebert's expansion to TV, he said, was a similar happenstance. That Siskel and Ebert (and later, Ebert alone) should have become the most heeded film reviewers on the planet was largely a serendipitous accident of being in the right place at the right time.
Still, no one took that football and ran farther with it than Ebert. It was lucky for the rest of us that he had good taste in movies, but there was also a missionary zeal that no one (perhaps not even Ebert, initially) realized was inherent in his work. Again, we are all fortunate that his enthusiasm was not for a particular school of criticism, but merely for having a critical and independent eye. His scholarship and teaching, his curation of his own film festival, and his cultivation of other writers were all intended not to force a particular set of standards for criticism but to encourage viewers to think about what they watched and to encourage critics to express those thoughts with clarity and eloquence, as he did.
That's why, even as film criticism as a profession seemed to be dying all around him (with many fingering the Internet as the chief culprit), Ebert waxed enthusiastic about the Web as a place to discover gifted amateur critics from around the world, new voices that might not otherwise have been heard. He recruited them as his "Far-Flung Correspondents" and brought many of them to America to speak at panels at Ebertfest. Today, it seems doubtful that anyone will ever make a living at criticism again (certainly no one will ever profit from it as handsomely as Ebert did for 46 years), but Ebert has helped ensure that criticism around the world will have a digital future.
Ebert himself seemed poised for a bright digital future, even as his health failed. Having battled since 2002 the cancers that had robbed him of his jaw and his voice, he found that voice again on the Internet as a blogger, Twitter personality, and e-mailer. (He was kind enough to strike up a brief e-mail correspondence with me after I wrote an essay for Moviefone exploring his legacy on the occasion of his 70th birthday last year.) His writing in recent years seemed more urgent and personal than ever, not because he seemed to be living on borrowed time, but because he literally could not express himself except at the computer keyboard.
His announcement just two days ago that he was taking what he called "a leave of presence" -- cutting down on his reviewing because his cancer had returned -- should have put us all on notice that his torrent of words was finally going to run dry, but there was no indication that the spigot would be shut off so abruptly and so soon. Ebert may have been putting the bravest possible face on his latest health woes, but his news was accompanied by the assurance that his latest Web venture, a revamped online company called Ebert Digital with a comprehensive archive of his tens of thousands of reviews, was on its way. The company was planning to re-launch RogerEbert.com on April 9. it will certainly be a fitting tribute for Ebert to live on in cyberspace in a way that real life denied him.
Whatever the future of his online properties, one thing certainly will continue: the conversation he started. His own voice may have lost its reach, due to the collapse of the profession he made and then unmade, but it was never silenced, and it was never less than welcoming to other voices, even those that disagreed with his opinions. Reviews are fleeting -- consumer dispatches meant to tell you whether or not to spend your money on a film during its opening weekend -- and today, few remember whether Ebert gave a particular movie thumbs-up or thumbs-down. What they will remember, I hope, is his criticism, the notion that movies matter enough for us to keep talking about them long after the house lights come up, and the notion that each new viewing (and new viewer) brings another reason to talk, so that the dialogue about movies need never end.