Roger Ebert, RIP

When  Roger Ebert's passed, it was nice to see Hollywood, in the person of folks like Martin Scorsese and Jason Reitman, paying their respects.

I remember the uncomfortable silence that attended Gene Siskel’s in memorium at the Oscars – no doubt there were some old wounds there -- and I thought that was too bad.

No such restraint of feeling for Ebert, perhaps because Hollywood knows what a powerful advocate Ebert has been for an industry that by rights should be as dead as the record business.

Somehow, it is not, and I think Ebert is part of the reason why.

Cut to 1975, when he and fellow newspaperman Siskel headlined “Sneak Previews" (later "At the Movies”) and brought their populist but highly informative/entertaining brand of criticism to the masses.

Their show arrived at exactly the moment Hollywood was making the transition from auteur-driven (but not terribly profitable) sixties and early seventies to the auteur-meets-blockbuster paradigm (Spielberg/Lucas) of the 70s and 80s. Spielberg, Lucas, later James Cameron, Peter Jackson and others offered an artistry of mass appeal that had a working with relationship with entertainment corporations.

What these corporations needed, whether the industry knew it or not, was exactly what Siskel and Ebert provided – digestible, accessible criticism that made movies feel substantial, and came, if you were lucky, with an ad-ready recommendation:

Two Thumbs Up.

Sure, the two gave out their share of pans, but this was a match made in marketing heaven (Disney thought so, and bought the show). And of course, Siskel and Ebert was a TV pairing made in heaven. Tall and thin, short and round, each complementing the other. Siskel looked at movies through story, character, performance, and understood the movie in emotional terms. Ebert was better at the conceptual, better at connecting with the idea of the movie as the work of the director. No wonder directors loved Ebert – he was a booster, calling attention to overlooked movies, helping careers (I remember seeking out Carl Franklin’s “One False Move” at Ebert’s urging).

And Ebert was an optimist. He was always excited about movies. Never mind that his excitement was often at odds with the appalling reality of Hollywood product. Ebert was more in love with the possibility of film, not it’s shoddy present tense. 

His show outlived the Siskel/Ebert partnership, but no imitator, no re-pairing of Ebert with another critic ever yielded the same result.

No matter – the show’s impact on culture was already ingrained. Its legacy: that movies matter, they can be great, transformative works of art. Worth the expense of a ticket, the trip to the theater. Worth checking out again on DVD, surely, or even mobile, but when the two men talked of saving the aisle seats, there were reinforcing the primacy of the theater-going experience.

Ebert understood the connection between movie and audience. Movies matter, and YOU matter. It’s a partnership. That’s why he was so comfortable with the democracy of internet opinion, welcomed it, waded right into it. He survived the transition to digital, and so, against all odds, have movies.

I’ve seen some carping that Ebert lacked the aesthetic of a great critic like Pauline Kael. Not sure I agree, but in any case, who needs an aesthetic when you have a TV show?

And worries about an aesthetic on deadline? Roger was a newspaperman, and a great one. May he rest in peace.