Film critic Roger Ebert died yesterday, just a couple of days after he announced he was taking a step back from his job to battle cancer—a fight he had waged off and on since 2002. He was 70.
Ebert was arguably the best known and most respected movie critic for decades. A longtime writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975—the first movie reviewer ever to earn the honor. In his later years, he was revered for his courage in dealing with cancer, which robbed him of the ability to both talk and eat solid food but rarely put a dent in his phenomenal output. He wrote 300 movie reviews last year alone.
“When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was,” he told Esquire magazine in 2010. “All is well. I am as I should be.”
I first “met” Ebert the way many of us did—sitting next to friend and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel in their television show At the Movies. The show introduced the world to their famous, easy-to-understand “thumbs up, thumbs down” ratings system that told millions of viewers whether a film was worth their time.
I remember as a kid—maybe 11 or 12—watching the two of them review movies that, frankly, I was often too young to see. It didn’t matter: Their banter was enough to keep me hooked. And I remember thinking, as I watched them talk, that they must have the best job in the world.
Funny, to consider Ebert a colleague of sorts. The critiques we lay down at Plugged In are far different from those Ebert penned. We here may talk, at times, about the craft of moviemaking, but more of our time is spent tabulating content: swear words and instances of nudity and how many limbs are thwacked off in Evil Dead. Ebert, as is the case with most film critics, was more concerned with the art of a picture. And when he wrote, some of his pieces rose to the level of art themselves.
And yet, he shared some of our concerns. Raised Catholic, he took issues with films he believed unfairly demeaned the faith. He had little tolerance for slasher horror flicks. In The Wall Street Journal in 2010, he suggested the MPAA’s ratings system was broken, and that online sites (like Plugged In, though he didn’t mention us by name) did a far more effective job of telling parents about what to watch for in films:
In today’s real world, there are only two meaningful ratings: R and not-R. In theory, members of the National Association of Theater Owners agree not to sell tickets to R-rated films to those under 17, unless accompanied by the proverbial parent or adult guardian. In practice, as everyone knows, this has led to theater-hopping in multiplexes and a porous standard of guardianship (“Hey, mister—get us into Saw 3D“). Kids slip into the movies they want to see, especially the horror films. They also see them at home on widely available DVDs, on cable, and via popular streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. …
It’s time to get pragmatic about this. The current ratings system is useful primarily for the parents of small children who are concerned that images or situations may be disturbing for young minds. They know a G film is harmless and a PG almost certainly is, and a PG-13 may or may not be. It’s an open secret that some naturally PG movies have an element or two thrown in to earn a PG-13, so teenagers aren’t scared off. That’s not a step forward.
There’s been a lot written about Ebert in the last day or so. You can read a fantastic obituary here. You can learn more about Ebert’s critical influence here. You can even read some thoughts about Ebert’s spiritual beliefs here.
All I can really add is that his wit, insight and honesty will be missed.
Ebert took films seriously, just as we do. And we stand in the man’s shadow.