Roger Ebert, the popular film critic and television co-host who along with his fellow reviewer and sometime sparring partner Gene Siskel could lift or sink the fortunes of a movie with their trademark thumbs up or thumbs down, died on Thursday. He was 70.
There are other film critics, and new ones come along all the time. But it is hard to imagine another film critic achieving the stature of Roger Ebert.
Pauline Kael is very popular and influential, but outside the circle of film buffs doesn’t have the sort of impact and recognition that Ebert has and I hope will continue to have, through his books and online access to his reviews and other writing.
And while the interwebs have opened up new spaces for film reviews and criticism, and allowed new voices to be heard, they have also made it hard for any one voice to build the kind of audience that Ebert had for so many years.
Some people, while mourning the loss of such a generally decent guy, may feel that his passing will open up more space for those other voices, many of whom disagree, directly or indirectly, with Ebert. I don’t think so. In recent years, Ebert has probably done more to bring attention to other, lesser known film reviewers than any other force in the public sphere, and has always been unfailingly gracious to respectful dissenting views.
I disagreed with many of his reviews. Perversely, I sometimes thought him both too accepting of mainstream fare and too willing to overlook the difficulties, flaws, and obscurantism of independent and avant-garde fare. But I knew he was smarter than me, and knew more about film than I ever would, and that he would be the first person to agree that issues of taste were always open. He was very good, though, at making the case for his point of view, and distinguishing between personal preferences and some sort of shared cultural space in which films could be evaluated and criticized.
His show with Gene Siskel, “Sneak Previews,” will be – probably forever – the model for film reviewing on television, and we’re lucky to have had such a model. And with any luck, Ebert’s writing will continue to serve as model for intelligent film reviewing aimed at a general audience. If we’re even luckier, Ebert’s internet presence will also be a influence on discourse in the still new, and still pretty raw and vicious, public sphere of the interwebs. He was a smart, sensitive, honest public voice, and he will be missed.