The Best Writing on Roger Ebert and His Legacy


Just a day after he announced a “leave of presence” from his full-time position as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, readers everywhere were devastated to hear of Roger Ebert’s death yesterday. As warm and empathetic as he was eloquent and critical, Ebert and his countless reviews inspired and influenced a generation of writers, many of whom (including our own Jason Bailey) immediately took up the difficult task of doing him justice. Here are some of the most moving tributes to the legendary critic, who concluded a decades-long career that only accelerated as he battled cancer, with his signature, hauntingly evocative sign-off, “I’ll see you at the movies.”

“Calling the overall human experience “poignant,” “thought-provoking,” and a “complete tour de force,” film critic Roger Ebert praised existence Thursday as “an audacious and thrilling triumph.” “While not without its flaws, life, from birth to death, is a masterwork, and an uplifting journey that both touches the heart and challenges the mind,” said Ebert, adding that while the totality of all humankind is sometimes “a mess in places,” it strives to be a magnum opus and, according to Ebert, largely succeeds at this goal. “At times brutally sad, yet surprisingly funny, and always completely honest, I wholeheartedly recommend existence. If you haven’t experienced it yet, then what are you waiting for? It is not to be missed.” Ebert later said that while human existence’s running time was “a little on the long side,” it could have gone on much, much longer and he would have been perfectly happy.” — The Onion

“I always loved Roger for being the good soldier; not only the good soldier of cinema, but he was a wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on and soldiered on and held the outpost that was given up by almost everyone: The monumental shift now is that intelligent, deep discourse about cinema has been something that has been vanishing over the last maybe two decades. And it has been systematically replaced by celebrity news. It is what it is, and we have to stand the tide. I try to hold out and keep up what Roger was after… I’ve always tried to be a good soldier of cinema myself, so of course since he’s gone, I will plow on, as I have plowed on all my life, but I will do what I have to do as if Roger was looking over my shoulder. And I am not gonna disappoint him.” — Werner Herzog

“He announced that he would be taking a “leave of presence” on the day before his death — a peculiar formulation. But Roger Ebert wanted like hell to stay with us. He was, foremost, a public man in a private profession, the Mayor of Movie Critic-Ville, closer on the spectrum to an ambassador than, say, his pugnacious Chicago colleague, Jonathan Rosenbaum… He had the ability more than anyone I’ve seen to talk — to think — in whole paragraphs, knowing from his first sentence what his last would be, framing his ideas with masterly simplicity. His work was accessible to people who normally had no patience for critics, for whom critics were fey droppers of opinions, insult kings, elitists. Ebert purged his elitist airs and said, ‘I’ll know what you like because I’m just like you. And we all live through movies.'” — David Edelstein, Vulture

“It would be all too easy to position Roger’s passing as some sort of literal manifestation of the much-discussed ‘death’ of film criticism, but no one would object to that idea more than Roger himself, who believed passionately in criticism and was, even in his final days, taking measures to ensure the future of his and its army of regular contributors and ‘far-flung correspondents.’ As long as there are movies, and people who feel passionate enough to write about them, and places for them to do so, then Roger’s spirit will continue to flourish. The balcony remains open.” — Scott Foundas, Variety

“In the course of his 70-year-long life — he was born the year after Pearl Harbor and died the year after “Gangnam Style” — Ebert witnessed massive shifts in American history and global politics and journalism and technology, not to mention cinema and popular culture. But he remained relentlessly modern, always alive to the particularity of the current moment he was living and curious about the one that would come next. It was that quality—paired with a seemingly bottomless reserve of intellectual and physical energy—that made him so keenly observant as a critic and such a master of the epigrammatic, fast flowing Twitter form. Even when he was debating gamers offended by his statement that video games could never be art, the charge that Ebert was somehow a calcified 20th-century fuddy-duddy was too ridiculous to stick. How many sexagenarian movie critics are out there pondering the question of the aesthetics of new media, marshaling everything from cave paintings to Aristotle to the films of Georges Méliès as evidence for their argument?” — Dana Stevens, Slate

“Part of Roger’s casual command was the effortless way that he abolished any (false) distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. It’s not that he didn’t know the difference. It’s that he had no snobbery and, at the same time, was too sophisticated to think that the difference mattered nearly as much as a lot of people pretended it did. Pauline Kael, likewise, was celebrated for breaking down the stodgy boundaries between “art” and “pop,” but Ebert did it by being an avid bookworm and art-film intellectual who never forget his daily-newspaper moxie or his early years penning precociously trashy screenplays for Russ Meyer. He knew, from the inside, that movies — all movies — were a game, and it allowed him to treat each and every one of them with the same bold eagerness.” — Owen Gleiberman, Inside Movies

“A critic’s noblest and most generous act is to inspire passion in others. Roger Ebert taught me to love the movies. Roger Ebert taught the world to love the movies. Look how many movie lovers are publishing their gratitude in tribute, in personal terms. Look how some refer to “the movies,” with its definite article — his populist, intimate, Midwestern way of referring to his life’s passion. He became most known for his thumbs, but this up-or-down brand was oddly out of sync with his ecumenical, nuanced grasp of cinema and life. This man was a mensch. This analyst was a humanist. This was a wit among twits. Everyone is a critic now, but how many of us possess the required authority, humanity and dexterity with words?” — Dan Zak, Washington Post

“If you are perplexed by the outpouring of affection for Ebert in the wake of his death Thursday — because you didn’t share his centrist sensibilities, or you believe his iconic “thumb” shtick demeaned the movies he was reviewing, or simply because it seems strange that a criticof all people could engender so much love — just know that whoever you do enjoy reading on the highs and lows of popular culture (including many of the writers for this very site) were touched in ways big and small by who Roger Ebert was and what he stood for. He’s the closest thing that this profession has to an Elvis Presley or an Orson Welles– people can disagree on the quality of the work, but the breadth of his influence isn’t up for debate. Roger Ebert changed people’s lives. Ebert never set out to have the final word; he was a facilitator of first steps, a guy pointing you in the right direction but otherwise leaving the exploring up to you. He never lorded his knowledge over people; he shared it generously but judiciously, giving you just enough to make you want to find out more on your own. And this worked more times than Ebert or anyone else will ever know. He was part teacher, part cheerleader, part curator, part fan thrilled at the prospect of being wowed, yet again, because there’s no such thing as “enough” when it comes to truly moving artistic experiences. Roger Ebert understood his audience because he was his audience. We should all be so humble, and so wise.” — Steven Hyden, Pitchfork

“As much as Ebert���s populist-but-cultured passion for movies shaped my own tastes growing up — my mother and I watched Siskel & Ebert religiously — it wasn’t until he began blogging that I truly appreciated the man and his sensibility. Though cancer robbed him of his voice, it allowed him to plumb the depths of everything from science and faith to evolution, and yes, video games, on his blog. He was so prolific that it’s hard to pin down a single entry that resonated with me, but suffice it to say, he was the rare writer — witty, eloquent, perfectly pitched — that inspired me simply to do better in my own life. Not just in regards to writing or thinking about popular culture, but in every aspect of simply being alive. In the end, I think Ebert’s non-film writing will be just as important — if not more — than his film reviews. It’s a shame he’ll be remembered as simply a ‘film critic’ by some, but there’s comfort in knowing others will remember him as much, much more.” — Matt Wild, A.V. Club