Remembering Roger Ebert, His Thumb and Film Criticism as a Conversation
When Roger Ebert replaced retired critic Eleanor Keane as head film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times in April 1967, American cinema was in the initial phase of a drastic transition. The Hays Code had recently been abolished after a slow decade of descent into irrelevance. With The Graduate, Hollywood began to rethink youth-oriented films in terms other than beach parties and Elvis movies. Art cinema from Europe and Japan were continuing to challenge the conventions of American cinema and the rigid expectations of American audiences.
At the ripe young age of 25, Ebert displayed an open-minded approach to cinematic expression that he would practice for his whole career, as well as remarkable foresight regarding the significance of the cinematic moment during which he began full-time film criticism. Of Bonnie in Clyde, that inciting landmark of New Hollywood, Ebert wrote in September 1967, “Years from now it is quite possible that ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor, and unforgiving detail what one society had come to.”
At the same time, Ebert was transparent about how far expertise could actually take the film critic in coming to an initial evaluation of difficult works. When he reviewed Bergman’s Persona that same year, he spent a good amount of his review simply describing the images onscreen without attempting explicit conclusions about their collective meaning. Ebert often revisited films, seeing criticism not as an act of definitive evaluation, but preferred seeing films as artistic artifacts that proliferated through culture, changed in time and history, and had (sometimes inexplicable) lasting emotional resonance.
Roger Ebert is without a doubt the most famous film critic in the history of the United States. It may be hard to believe, but the shadows of Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael still largely hang over cinephiles exclusively. There is ample evidence for the breadth of Ebert’s reputation, most notably his notorious thumb that graced many a film poster when pointed upward. He was a film critic fit for the media age, with a television-friendly persona and a direct, slogan-ready means of conveying critical evaluation. The thumb itself has received ample criticism, as it has suggested for some a reductive binary for evaluating movies, or at least an oversimplified shorthand that overshadowed the actual content of his reviews or his engaged conversations with late friend/rival Gene Siskel.
Ebert himself referred to ratings as the “bane of film criticism.”
Of course, Ebert only used the thumb grade on he and Siskel’s long-running syndicated television show; his written reviews utilized a standard star scale. And the thumb itself emerged only after conversation – and, often, ample disagreement – with his regular sparring partner. Ebert and Siskel regularly expressed divergent tastes and standards for evaluation; they were not always, as they seemed on TV, amicable and friendly. Even films that found their thumbs pointing the same direction were met with differences as to why and to what degree. For Ebert, these differences were absolutely necessary for their yin-yang critical partnership. Film criticism was clearly more interesting to Ebert as a discursive, conversant practice, not a means of etching sacrosanct evaluation or enforcing a notion of the infallible expertise of the reviewer. The show required two critics. Evaluations are contextually relative. And the conversation never really ends.
Ebert viewed films themselves as something of a conversation. His professional beginnings during the radical age of Hollywood filmmaking is essential to understanding his philosophy of film criticism. Ebert is famous for saying that empathy is the most essential quality of civilization, and he viewed films themselves as a powerful conduit for developing an expansive worldview. He once asserted that films are a great way to understand lives that are not like your own, and declared that people who only sought films that represented people like themselves lack imagination. Ebert recognized that films had a transformational, life-changing quality to them.
When Ebert joined Twitter, some who were familiar mostly with his public persona were surprised (and turned off) by his seemingly endless discussion of politics. But for Ebert, cinema and cinemagoing was inherently political; the best films, for Ebert, were the ones that challenged entrenched sensibilities and assumptions, films that led those willing to go to new empathetic encounters. For Ebert, cinephilia is a fundamentally progressive practice.
Thus, despite the marketability of his thumb, Ebert had little patience for Hollywood’s blanket grabs at commercialism, often referring to vacant Hollywood products as condescending to their audiences. His famous bad reviews were largely the only circumstances in which Ebert would make explicit the implied economic function of film criticism, as he urged audiences not to endorse or encourage such films with their dollar. Ebert thought it was important to distinguish between good old-fashioned entertainment (Minority Report was his favorite film of 2002, Argo his favorite of 2012) from Hollywood drudge-work (in an ironic demonstration of how the daily grind of film criticism often works in service to the film industry, the aggressively forgettable The Host is Ebert’s final review). But Ebert’s heart stayed with his first love: art cinema.
While Citizen Kane was Ebert’s “official” answer to the inevitably repeated “favorite film” question, he often recounted La Dolce Vita as his personal favorite, which was also one of the first films he ever reviewed (as evidence of his developmental approach to cinema, he wasn’t exactly gushing about Fellini’s film the first time).
But in his bad reviews, Ebert regularly expressed a sense that the only people who would read such pieces are audiences who wouldn’t see or like the film in question in the first place. He must have known that critics have a relatively insignificant role in the face of the Hollywood cloning machine – but more importantly, he likely didn’t see the role of the critic as having any sort of economic or dictatorial imperative. Instead, Ebert realized that the power of film critic resides in their ability to uplift worthwhile films from obscurity and into public knowledge. Errol Morris credits Ebert for starting his film career because of the adulation Ebert leveled at Morris’s esoteric first film, Gates of Heaven. Ebert saw the role of the film critic as an advocate for good filmmaking, someone who can utilize a microphone for filmmakers that might not otherwise have one.
Nowhere is this more evident than Ebertfest, a film festival dedicated to overlooked films. In a few weeks, Ebertfest will be showing the masterful imports Oslo, August 31st and Blancanieves alongside In the Family, a critically beloved film that is still without an official distributor. I assume that Ebert would want the festival (and the ethics of criticism that inspired the festival) to continue well after his departure.
Film criticism has experienced an incredible array of changes since Ebert first began writing reviews full-time forty-five years ago. From foregrounding personality to supporting obscure works to the now-standard practice of writing for years without pay, Ebert is both partly to credit for, and proved adaptable to, these changes. Since losing his voice as a result of a tracheotomy to treat his thyroid cancer, Ebert gained a remarkably distinct and expansive voice through social media. He was able to exhibit aspects of his persona through the Internet that were rarely seen on television, to the delight and confusion of many that this accessible, milquetoast-seeming TV critic actually possessed a wicked sense of humor and a sincere bleeding heart.
For many on this site, including myself, Roger Ebert was a gateway into film criticism and film appreciation. His death is significant because, up until now, he seemed a ubiquitous presence for many of us. From the syndicated Siskel & Ebert to his facebook page, Ebert has remained a prolific, lasting, and (I assume, for most) welcome presence. Maybe some of the criticisms leveled at him are right; maybe his media personality obscured his actual writing. Ebert would likely never have been one of very few critics to become a household name by his writing alone. But Ebert’s fame was rarely about him. I didn’t tune in to his show when I was 11 because I was a Roger Ebert fan, but because I was a movie fan. And before the era of the podcast, watching two other cinephiles discussing movies seriously was something of a treasure.
Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel, let’s be fair) provided a shorthand through which the rest of us could explain to people why it wasn’t absolutely insane to devote your life to a love of cinema. As a public figure, Ebert was important and arguably without precedent. Of course, after all these years, I’ve regularly disagreed with his tastes. While Ebert was prescient in his take of films from the late 60s, he’s not important because he was “right” about anything. The television show is essential to understanding his contribution to film criticism: it was never about one person’s opinion, but the conversation itself.