“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Words of writerly wisdom from the late Roger Ebert, whom several generations of Americans came to recognize not just as a film critic, but as the very personification of film criticism. He earned this place in the country’s zeitgeist by mastering two starkly disparate types of media: the medium-length but always substantial review written for newspapers, and the short conversational review broadcast on television. The former we read in the form of his syndicated film pieces for the Chicago Sun-Times; the latter we watched on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. After his co-host Gene Siskel’s passing in 1999, Ebert continued with Roger Ebert and the Movies, followed by Ebert and Roeper and the Movies. But longtime fans of his film criticism on television, and new fans discovering the show’s old episodes on the internet, will always look back to Ebert’s on-air debates — which sometimes devolved, simply, into fights — as the peak of the form, at least in terms of entertainment value. Above you’ll find a classic example in Siskel and Ebert’s tiff over the firefight in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. “I have never felt a kill in a movie quite like that,” insists Siskel. “Not in Apocalypse Now? Not in The Deer Hunter? Not in Platoon?” Ebert asks before his riposte: “In that case, you’re going to love the late show, because they have kills like that every night in black and white starring John Wayne.” (BTW, we have a collection of John Wayne films here.)
Ebert knew how to deliver that metaphorical punch (and, when necessarily, to approach the edge of actual fisticuffs) on television. In print, he knew how to remain curious and thoughtful even when served each week’s heaping helping of studio mediocrity. This milder, more complicated, vastly knowledgeable critical persona comes through in his 1996 conversation with Charlie Rose (part one, part two) just above. Though he could celebrate and dismiss with the utmost conviction, he also understood that the film critic has higher duties than evaluation. He demonstrates this understanding all throughout his review archive, which, embracing the web before most critics of his generation, he’d put online by the mid-nineties. Back then, I spent an hour or two every day after school in the library, plowing through his back pages. I thought I was learning about the movies, as indeed I was, and I was certainly learning a thing or two about reviewing the movies, but I was above all learning about the whole craft of writing, and thus about approaching the world, cinematic and otherwise. We won’t remember Roger Ebert for the stars he doled out and withheld, nor for the angle of his thumbs; we’ll remember him for his ability to, through the lens of the movies, consider life itself.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.