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Criticwire Survey: Ebert's Influence

Critics weigh in on the good — and bad — ways Roger Ebert changed the culture.
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Statue of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill.
Statue of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill.

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: The release of "Life Itself" has many critics dwelling on Roger Ebert's influence. What effect did he or his writing have on you, and how do you see his influence on the culture of criticism as a whole?

John DeCarli, Film Capsule


I'll remember Ebert most as a writer of great clarity and precision, and as a champion of cinema and of increased cinematic knowledge in the general public. While other critics and scholars are remembered for contributions to academia or film theory, I think Ebert's legacy will be as the cinematic voice of the people, a public persona, the Marshall McLuhan of film criticism, unafraid to serve as a popular icon in his field, but a thinker whose work is no less rigorous or meaningful for being widely accessible. I think that most essentially Ebert showed that film is an art and a technology of great range, both as a means of mass entertainment and of intimate, personal expression. Ebert never closed himself off from either end of this spectrum, and it's my goal as a critic to remain similarly open to all that film has to offer, and to inspire readers to do the same.

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

I remember reading Ebert's reviews starting back in high school; my town's local paper would syndicate them, and I'd check them out Friday nights during my dinner break at the video store. I'd often find myself disagreeing with Ebert, but even when I did, I saw why he liked something I hated or vice versa — and more importantly, his passion in either direction was always a palpable part of his copy — not an easy feat.

I read a piece he wrote, after seeing the movie "Lost and Delirious" at Sundance in 2001, in which he described the breasts of young stars Piper Perabo and Jessica Pare. (He was very much a fan of them, and the actors as well.) It was criticism that came from a very personal place; it was also, as a girl around the same age, pretty creepy to see in print. However, his official review, as archived on the eminently useful RogerEbert.com, opens with this: "'Lost and Delirious' is a hymn to teenage idealism and hormones. It has been reviewed as a movie about steamy lesbian sex in a girls' boarding school, which is like reviewing 'Secretariat' on the basis of what he does in the stable."

Looking at the new review, I understood a little better why a professional film critic would make such a thing of seeing young naked women on screen; I also admired Ebert for revising and clarifying his opinion, and writing a review that captured the essence of the film, as well as how it affected him. That's the trick of criticism, I think: finding a way to take a personal experience and an objective opinion and make it into a piece that brings a film to life, all in the few paragraphs a suburban nerd has time to read while eating a sandwich.

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

As a kid, I adored watching Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel) on their variously named TV shows, and found their passion and knowledge inspiring. Since I wasn't from Chicago, and there was not yet an internet, television provided my only exposure to Ebert's thoughts. But the movies I saw because of him have lingered with me since. (I always think of "My Dinner With Andre" as a particular example of a movie I never would have seen then.) 

What I think about now when I think about Ebert now is the depth of his written legacy, wonderfully preserved on RogerEbert.com (and continued by Matt Zoller Seitz, who has done a terrific job with the site). The fact that his reviews of most classic movies (and many more that are not classics!) are there for us to read is a gift. And it's a gift that I'm pretty sure no other critic will give us. I think this one of "My Fair Lady" is my favorite, especially this wonderful sentence: 

"It is unnecessary to summarize the plot or list the songs; if you are not familiar with both, you are culturally illiterate, although in six months I could pass you off as a critic at Cannes, or even a clerk in a good video store, which requires better taste."

What's better that that?

Nell Minow, Beliefnet, RogerEbert.com

I was a movie-mad teenager in Chicago when Roger published his first review in the Sun-Times and was thrilled to learn that the paper's new critic was just a few years older than I was. I don't think he gets enough credit as a writer — his sentences have a wonderful muscularity and wit. A few years later, when he and Gene first appeared on our local public television station, long before the show went nationwide and commercial, I was captivated by the idea that people could engage so passionately and in such depth about film. The episode that changed my life is excerpted in "Life Itself." It was their review of a new documentary from Errol Morris called "Gates of Heaven." I learned for the first time that a documentary was more than a break in science class; it could be a serious and ambitious work of art. And I learned about non-studio films, a whole new world. Roger was also a pioneer in the era of new media and I loved the way he responded to the thousands of comments on his blog. His commentary on "Citizen Kane" taught me how much I had missed not just in that film but in all movies. It was like a year of film school in two hours. Now this film tells his story as a critic and as a man. The grace and courage he showed in confronting his illness and the depth of his love for Chaz is the real lesson about what it takes to be a great critic; a great heart.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

That one line, which has shaped how I think and write and teach criticism more than any other -- that if a movie did its job, you left the theater as a truer version of who you were. I love that, and think of it often.


Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Indiewire

Most of the effect Ebert had on me as a writer was one step removed, as he inspired the people who directly inspired me. Every so often he'd have a take on something that bothered me, either a dismissal or a rave that seemed out of proportion to the movie I personally saw, but these occasions were rare. And, certainly, I do wish he hadn't such a hardened antipathy to video games. But more often I'd be impressed by the empathy and generosity with which he'd approach decidedly uncool movies that deserved better than to be sneered at, and for his ability to (nearly) always successfully engage with what something was rather than what he wished it was. His influence on criticism probably won't be as vast as his direct antecedents would like, since a disturbingly high number of people paid to write criticism are also, and primarily, paid to write what are essentially PR pieces for studio blockbusters for as much as (and occasionally more than) two years prior to their release. Their subsequent reviews aren't criticism as much as they are debriefs from the promotional process, whose grotesquely protracted length leaves everyone involved too fatigued to ever discuss the movie in question again, instead having to press on to the next two-years-in-the-future release date. The blurring of the line between film criticism and film industry journalism was already going on when Ebert was still around, and while I didn't know him I can't imagine he would be thrilled by the continuation of that blurring. But as long as people interested in movies themselves more than the business machinations that precede their making continue to insist on the primacy of the movies, we should be okay, and in a film culture of which Mr. Ebert could at least marginally approve.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Whenever I encountered a movie for the first time as a teenager, I would immediately check out Ebert's review and determine whether I agreed with it. Many can relate to that ritual, I'm sure. But what I found fascinating about Ebert's style was that he managed to come across as a sincere movie lover while still placing his own moral code ahead of his aesthetic judgements. That's a tricky line for anybody to walk in any discipline.

At worst, sometimes it seemed like Ebert was smitten with a movie simply because its spiritual dimension was pure, but you could still appreciate his enthusiasm and the prose that came out of it. At other times, however, Ebert was the best ideologue who ever watched movies for a living.

That's why he was such a terrific television presence. It's one thing to take a stance in print, which is an inherently one-way street. But when Ebert lectured you, stared you down, and didn't just make his point but forced it into your mind with Jedi-like finesse -- well, that was something else. I'm partial to this episode of the show in which Ebert defended John Carpenter's "Halloween." Within six seconds, you're hooked by way of Ebert's emphatic cadences and the abrupt realization that he's made a great point: "There is a difference between good and scary movies and movies that systematically demean half the human race." And just like that, I became a discerning horror fan. Every time I've been legitimately freaked out by a movie, Roger can take partial credit. He gave us reasons to love movies at all costs.
Richard Brody, the New Yorker

Age and circumstances have a lot to do with the possibility of influence. When I got interested in movies in the mid-seventies, I don't think I knew who Roger Ebert was; he wrote for a Chicago paper that I didn't see in the New York area. When he went on national TV, I didn't own a TV; when I got one, I rarely watched the show. Something about the argumentative style, the volume level of the discussion — even the pace (I'd rather have been reading the debate) — got in the way of the content. I had more or less no opinion about Ebert at all, no sense of his ideas, until he launched his website, thanks to which I got to know his work as a personal essayist before acquainting myself with his film criticism. His movie work hasn't influenced me at all, because I came to it so late; his intimate, autobiographical work couldn't influence me because it's a true literary achievement, not journalism or criticism but, simply, writing, of the sort that I wouldn't dare to attempt — and, for that matter, living, such as I've never done. His personal writing transforms his experience into a moral ideal, a wonderful life — the sort of influence to which it would be vain to lay claim.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

His influence on me was to watch as many movies as I possibly could, to let the movie teach me to watch it, to do away with preconceived notions, and to love films.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Plenty of people were inspired to become critics by Roger, but (as I've told the story many times before) I likely owe my career to him in a much more practical way: At a time when I was looking for a job, he had identified me in one of his annual "Movie Yearbooks" as one of his favorite (then-)online-based critics. Having that endorsement in my hand was a huge part of how I landed my first full-time gig. And I had the good fortune to be able to thank him in person one year at Sundance for it.

At the risk of re-hashing all of the evaluations that were written at the time of his passing last year, he certainly was a crucial figure in making film criticism accessible, which has been interpreted variously as positively democratizing film culture, and negatively emphasizing the "thumbs up/thumbs down" sensibility. But the kind of thing he did for me and for many other aspiring writers is the legacy that I think matters most: He was someone who was generous with his support of the people and art that he thought deserving. Certainly he could write a scathing pan with the best of them, but he also demonstrated that the most powerful works of film writing come from love of what the movies can do at their best.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Roger was very supportive to me when I was coming up. A few weeks before I moved to Philadelphia to review for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he was on a Philly talk show and told the host how lucky the city was to get one of the best critics in the country. Like some of his reviews, his endorsement was extremely generous, but it sure made an impression on my employers and my readers.

Between 1986 and 2006 the number of movies released escalated by threefold and Roger, like all of us, was occasionally guilty of writing faster than the speed of thought. There were times when he was glib, times when he was just plain overextended. But those occasions were a tiny dot on the great circle of the times he wrote about the most complicated (politically, emotionally, formally) movies in the most lucid and enthusiastic (and often poetic prose). Like Vince Canby, another Chicago-area native, Roger was guy of sophisticated tastes who wrote clean and sharp as Joe Sixpack. (The weird thing about both, as I found when dining with them, is that they were movie omnivores but not food omnivores.)

I was one of the many writers critical of the Siskel/Ebert reductio ab digit pollex (thumb) quality of the TV show. Yet when Gene died, I admitted to Roger that I belatedly realized they did more good than bad in highlighting foreign films, indie films and documentaries and popularizing them. He was most nimble at adapting to changes in business and media platforms. His advice to me when I took the Philadelphia was, "Own your syndication rights" — something the Knight-Ridder owned paper was unwilling to grant. One of the last things he asked me when he still could talk was, "Why aren't you more active on the Internet?"

It was so touching that when Roger lost his powers of speech, his writing voice got so much more eloquent. He really was, as I think Richard Corliss dubbed him, the moviegoer in chief. He didn't believe his opinion was more important than anybody else's. All of his para-cinematic activity (Ebertfest, Democracy in the Dark) was to make moviegoing a civic activity, to help people see — and help people see that their opinions mattered.

Miss you mucho, Roger.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

My friendship with Roger didn't start off easily. I was a kid, he and Gene had just left PBS to start their own, syndicated review show, and I, along with a handful of others had flown into Chicago to audition for Sneak Previews. While Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler were eventually chosen as the hosts, I had a great time auditioning (I even got to sit in Roger's seat in the "balcony") and continued on with both radio and television gigs in New York. 

It was not long after Roger had gone pretty ballistic on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" (a show I regular appeared on) regarding my and his replacement Lyons' quotes for "Nuns on the Run," a film he believed defamed nuns, that I found myself seated behind Roger at a screening in New York. I introduced myself and his companion turned to me, expressing her appreciation for my radio program. "I love it!", she exclaimed. "You do?" Roger asked her. She was extremely gracious, chatting enthusiastically, while Roger sat silently. To be honest, I could kind of appreciate his discomfort, but, you know, there it was. 

Soon after, when we would see one another at junkets or screenings, Roger began to make a point of saying hello. We began spending more and more time together, hashing out our reactions to the movies we'd just seen or even just walking the streets, sharing stories about the amazing people we had both been lucky enough to interview. I loved his knowledge, hunger and passion. One of my most cherished memories is the morning Gene, his daughters, Roger, my son and I sat together at one of those hilarious character breakfasts Disney puts on at their resorts. It's to all of our advantages that was in the days before ubiquitous cameras on cell phones. 

I will always appreciate Roger and Gene's friendship but even more, I will cherish the respect they showed me, a young woman at the start of her career. Of course, I learned so much from them about film: its history, its future and its essential role in the world. But I also learned, from watching them and so many others, how to be a part of that world, to review with honest impartiality, to keep an open mind but duck the snarky slings and arrows (yes, there were plenty of critics very happy to huff at the from-Pulitzer-to-a-thumb twist) and how to hang in there. Those are lessons, I too, try to pass on now.

Roger Ebert receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005
Roger Ebert receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005
Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second 

I have no real feelings towards Ebert either way. I enjoyed some of his writing, but didn't grow up with him, nor did I make any real effort to specifically seek out his work online in more recent years. In spite of this I have nothing but admiration for the role he played in extending the film culture discourse beyond the walls of the niche. Growing up outside of the US my first glimpse of Ebert came via an episode of "The Simpsons," and it could be said that that itself is a testament to just how wide his persona and influence had spread. 

In spite of my apathy towards Ebert's work, I found "Life Itself" to be hugely affecting. James' film felt very open and honest, and there was an integrity to the telling of Ebert's story. When telling such tales, especially in so recent a wake of the death of the subject one might expect a degree of whitewashing, but I never specifically felt as though that was the case here. The film also served as a proper introduction to Chaz for me too, who is nothing short of a great inspiration. 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandom

Not sure if it's a generational thing (I'm 26) or a geographical thing (I live in England), but Ebert has never been an active influence on my writing, criticism or approach to films. That's not to deny Ebert's contribution, positive or otherwise, to a film culture centered around a kind of gluttonous, omnivorous intake that's been aspired to and adopted by many of my contemporaries. There's still a place for household names churning out one consumer review after another — but is there any time? I read his article on alcoholism when he died and thought it was great.

Miriam Bale, New York Times

I'm a little embarrassed that I have no strong feelings about Roger Ebert. He seemed like such a good person, and his embrace of the new and passion to communicate, especially towards the end of his life, were undeniably inspiring. 

But my early memories of Roger Ebert were very impressionable, and he showed me that arguing about a film was the most fun you could have. And since I usually trusted him over Siskel, he also taught me to find a critic who is your guy/guide. I realized early that he wrote in a certain (newspaper) formula, so that if I didn't want to learn anything about the plot, just wanted a sense of tone, I would only read the first paragraph or two and the last line. I still prefer film criticism with as little plot as possible.

But the thing that was most eye-opening to me then and now was the fact that he wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," a film I love in a genre I love. His understanding of B movies is key to to what makes his criticism valuable.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant, In Review Online

Truth is, I came relatively late to Roger Ebert, having been imprinted by the criticism of Pauline Kael in my early film-critic explorations before I dove into Ebert's Sun-Times reviews, his book collections, and his television show (alas, I missed most of the Siskel years). So while Ebert was certainly present as I was developing my tastes and voice, I don't consider him as crucial an influence on me personally as, say, his Chicago compatriot Jonathan Rosenbaum. Frankly, to me, despite his reputation and popularity, Ebert, at least with his weekly current-release reviews, struck me as more akin to a utility infielder: certainly capable of critical insights and eloquence, more often content to churn out solid and accessible copy week-in and week-out. 

Still, I do think I picked up something from Roger Ebert — if not necessarily from his writing, then from the open-hearted generosity behind his words. The latter quality was magnified when he started his journal during his fight against cancer, where that curious and empathetic perspective seemed to gain a newfound clarity of expression with each new post he published. Plus, his efforts to try to bring new voices from all over the world through his "Far-Flung Correspondents" initiative was nothing but admirable. So while I may blanch a bit at the criticism-as-consumer-guide influence of his television series, and while I don't have quite the same reverence for his writing as I do for those of other critics... well, I felt an undeniable sense of loss when he died. Love him or hate him, there will probably be no one else like him.

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

I can truly say that Ebert influenced me and the culture of film criticism (such as it is now) quite a bit. I almost always found his work to be evenhanded and he never pretended to be some kind of pointy-headed know-it-all, and as the old saying goes, usually even gave suckers an even break. I deplore the work of critics who think they are the only one who knows what a filmmaker was trying to do with her or his work. Pretension is not helpful when writing about movies. No one cares if you think you know it all. Ebert avoided that, and it was a blessing. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I could fill several weeks' worth of Criticwire Surveys with the details of how Ebert affected me. I wouldn't be a film critic if not for his inspiration and influence. In the interest of brevity, I'll say that what impacted me most was the scope of his approach to cinema. I knew of other film critics growing up. They were of two varieties: those who wrote about films in a highly academic style, and those who were basically cornball TV personalities (i.e. Gene Shalit) who only talked about the big commercial movies of the day in the most basic of terms. Roger was the first critic I ever came across who seemed to bridge that gap. He took movies very seriously and could discuss them with a great deal of intelligence and insight. At the same time, he also knew movies were entertainment, and he wasn't afraid to celebrate a film that had little substance but which showed him a good time. Any genre was fine. If it entertained him, he recommended it. I try to stay true to that philosophy. As for his influence on the culture of film criticism... well, just look at all the folks like me who entered this field because of him.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, The Believer

In my 11th grade honors English class, my teacher, Mr. Brown, this tiny but incredibly erudite old man who wore knit ties before they were cool again, made each student pick one film from AFI's top 100 movie lists that we hadn't yet seen and write a 500 word review (I picked "Fargo"). His goal was to make us appreciate movies as an art — the difference between a film and a movie, and the way they often bleed into each other. I was a life-long movie geek, having worn out my VHS of "Jaws," "Alien(s)," "Terminator 2" and "Predator 2" (admittedly the odd man in the bunch) by the time I hit 8, and becoming desensitized by Quentin Tarantino at 12. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was also a budding film critic, a thing I didn't even know existed. I prodigiously read Leonard Maltin's 50-word reviews in his annual movie guide, and I started to write my own movie reviews for my friends — longform film criticism with heavy emphasis on aesthetics, before the words "longform," "criticism," and "aesthetic" had any relevant meaning to my life. But I just thought of it as fun, not serious art.

I'd read Roger Ebert's reviews every week — I remember literally screaming when, in the middle of one of my monologues on how Christopher Nolan's Batman movie would be shitty, Ebert posted his 4-star "Batman Begins" review; and once his website began to archive all his Great Movie reviews, I consumed them gluttonously. But it wasn't until Mr. Brown gave me Ebert's first collection of Great Movies that the greatness of Ebert became apparent. Ebert's reviews of "Vertigo" (in which he argues that Kim Novak's ostensibly "wooden" performance adds to the film's multi-layered deceit, which opened my eyes to the innate artifice of Hitchcock's films), M, "Pulp Fiction," "Psycho," "Peeping Tom", "The Silence of the Lambs," and "Le Samouraï" all helped me to see those respective films in new, enlightened ways. But in college I drifted away from Ebert's 4-star-happy, hugely accessible style when I discovered Pauline Kael, who changed how I viewed film criticism (a college prof introduced me to her, and subsequently suggested I go to grad school for arts journalism, so I can thank him for my lifetime of debt). Whereas Ebert seemed to love everything save for Dead Teenager movies and used very simple prose, Kael felt like an irreparable, unstoppable force of nature.

I've since come back around to appreciate Ebert's undying adoration for movies — the pictures of his unkempt office, with its movie poster chaos and looming stacks of papers threatening to topple over and smother the man, make me smile. I've come to appreciate his punchy, witty prose, as well as his self-awareness. I never feel like I'm reading a sermon or a lecture when I read Ebert. I know I'm reading his personal take on a film, albeit a very informed and smart personal take, and he never tried to hide that subjectivity. Like most of us, I don't think I'd have ever gotten into film criticism had it not been for Ebert. 

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Phila Gay News

I certainly enjoyed watching Ebert on TV, and I think he's a very fine writer, but I gravitated more towards Pauline Kael. She influenced me more in terms of what to see in films and what films to see — than Ebert (or other critics ever did). I do think Ebert was a great and necessary populist critic, and I admire his volume of work and contributions, but I'm a loyal Paulette.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

I understand the desire to be contrarian, so I'll lead off with the most negative thing I can think of to say about Mr. Ebert — for a guy who wrote a Russ Meyer movie, he sure was pearl-clutchingly hysterical about horror early on. I also think that if he had anything to do with the selection of Siskel substitutes that came and went, his choices were not especially good.

There, that's out of the way. Honestly, asking critics to dis Ebert is a bit like asking popular singers to dish on why Elvis wasn't all that (and similarly, I can imagine some voices naysaying with an argument about white male homogeneity, which might be interesting to read if made; Ebert's own calling out of specific critics who disliked Crash smelled like overcompensation). I think for most of us — by which I mean those who first learned about Siskel and Ebert from the Mort Drucker caricatures in MAD magazine — Ebert was the man who shattered the stereotype of the critic as pretentious elitist; here was a guy who did not, as the cliché about critics goes, expect every movie to be "Citizen Kane," and could rate movies intended purely for entertainment on their own terms. His TV presence, I think, may have done him a disservice perception-wise. I remember quite often instructing people to actually read his written columns, which were entertaining and to-the-point, and certainly more clear than a simple thumb up or down.

And about that — I think most thoughtful writers chafe at being forced to reduce their argument down to a grade, Yet most of us have had to do it. Ebert merely had the sense to trademark the way he did it.

Many of my colleagues had Ebert's acknowledgement — I always wanted it, but the only interaction I ever had with him was a response to a comment I left about how one might make a Mike Leigh video game (a topic he had brought up). I suggested a Rock Band Gilbert and Sullivan edition based on "Topsy-Turvy," which seemed to amuse him. I can't think of any other living critic today, save maybe Joe Bob Briggs (is he even still criticking?), whose acknowledgement would matter as much as that comment did.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

Like many others my age, I'm sure, Roger Ebert had a profound effect on me growing up, both as writer and as half of Siskel & Ebert. Ebert was a gateway drug of sorts, introducing me to aspects of cinephilia and filmmaking in general that I wouldn't have appreciated otherwise. (Pan-and-scan vs. widescreen is one example of something I latched onto around age 10, thanks to Ebert railing against the former style of video presentation.) It's because of Ebert that I began reading other critics, that I became aware of other critics aside from his colleague across the aisle. And it's because of Ebert that I wanted to write film criticism of any kind. Again, I doubt this is going to be an uncommon answer, but that only speaks to Ebert's lasting power as a writer and guide. 

Regarding his influence as a whole, I feel like, inadvertently, the "Two Thumbs Up" mentality has inspired too many readers to look at criticism as binary: either you love something or you hate it. I'm not wholly certain that this speaks negatively on Ebert or Siskel so much as the culture that sprung up around them, from copycat shows like "Sneak Previews" (with Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved) to the fresh/rotten designation on Rotten Tomatoes. But it at least starts with Ebert. That said, the countless men and women, young and old, that he influenced and inspired outweighs, to me, the shift in conversation in some film lovers.

Dan Schindel, Film School Rejects, Movie Mezzanine

Watching At the Movies as a kid is how I first learned that film criticism is a thing that people can do. So in that respect, I guess Ebert (and Roeper (not Siskel, Siskel died before I ever saw it)) is a formative influence for me. I also read some of his books while in college. Otherwise, he doesn't loom terribly large in my consciousness. I honestly feel on the outside looking in sometimes when it comes to all the reminiscing and tributes to the man, and that's intensified with Life Itself's impending release. Not that I begrudge anyone who knew or idolized Ebert. I will say that I'll consider myself content and successful with my career (assuming this becomes my career, knock on wood) if I can do what he did and speak to "normal" movie-watchers just as well as dedicated cinephiles, the way he could.

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

"Citizen Kane," "The Third Man," "Last Year at Marienbad," "Aguirre the Wrath of God," "Gates of Heaven," "Do the Right Thing," "Hoop Dreams," "Fargo," "Magnolia," "The Grey Zone" and Ebert's negative review of "A Clockwork Orange" which I balked at until it took me enough time to figure out he was mostly right.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

Roger Ebert was my introduction to film criticism. Before him, I didn’t know there was such a profession, so you could say that he was the one who got me into the business even though we never met or exchanged correspondence. When I was growing up, his opinion was the one that mattered, and while that consistent voice was overall a good thing, in a pre-Internet era and especially a limited media market, it also had the effect of feeling like it was truly the only voice out there. Oftentimes, seeing a film came down to whether or not it got Two Thumbs Up (or at least the go-ahead from Roger). Even post-Siskel, looking at Roger’s website each Friday for new films’ star ratings was the thing to do, but as my tastes developed I relied less on his opinions and through the online critical boom was able to find additional reviewers to read. I have my issues with aggregators and Twitter, but the diversity of critical voices they expose me to is valuable.

Cameron Williams, The Popcorn Junkie

The line that always sticks with me from Ebert's writing is from his review of Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" from 2001, "'Pearl Harbor' is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle." Ebert always found the perfect "in." He had a knack for driving to the heart of what a film was about and the critical cycle felt incomplete until you'd heard Ebert's point-of-view. With Ebert's passing it feels like the critical narrative remains unfinished with each new release. 

The sins can't be overlooked and it's true that Ebert created the monster that is the populist movie review. Despite Ebert's incredible analysis on a film the "thumbs up or thumbs down" formula of his television work undermined his commentary as it was dwindled down to a scrappy little thumb. Ebert was more than aware of the impact thumbs and star ratings had on his work as summarized excellently in his piece You Give Out Too Many Stars

Ebert means different things to different people and I was never lucky enough to meet the man but he was always a source of inspiration with each word he wrote. The effect he had on me was his ability to remove himself from the promotional side of the film business and be an independent voice; he was such a great role model for any journalist and film critic. Roger’s Little Rule Book is one of those superb common sense pieces that reinforce the basics of being a film critic in a world where writers are increasingly being embedded within the publicity cycle. 

Finally, Ebert's generosity towards anyone that was passionate about film proved that movies mean nothing if you don't have anyone to share the experience with. Ebert's "Far-Flung Correspondents," the people he encouraged in fan letter replies and the general conversation he started about film in the public domain showed that he was willing to give more of himself for the thing he loved the most.

Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon-ho's 'Snowpiercer'
Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon-ho's 'Snowpiercer'

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: "Snowpiercer"

Other movies receiving multiple votes: "Life Itself," "Obvious Child," "They Came Together," "22 Jump Street"

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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