We just received news that Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert has died. More on that soon.
Well, that was quick. Barely 24 hours after announcing he was scaling back his reviews due to illness, Roger Ebert finally succumbed to the cancer he's been battling for over a decade.
The news feels simultaneously inevitable and infuriating. On one hand, the guy couldn't fight forever, suffering setback after setback ... except -- for a while there -- he did just that. Not only did he refuse to let cancer sideline him, he used the opportunity to have some of the most prolific writing years of his career. Shit, I'm a healthy man and I'd need 72-hour days to approach that kind of output.
Make no mistake, you will never see another movie critic like him. Some may share his encyclopedic film knowledge, while others might snag the odd TV gig or two, but the era where a movie writer from the Midwest (or anywhere, really) could exert Ebert's level of influence is over. Where once there were dozens of film critics, now there are thousands, most with their own audiences and gimmicks. We live in an age where anybody (literally, anybody) can call themselves a "critic." Roger Ebert was the real deal, and we who shared his love of film are going to miss having him around.
I hope Siskel saved him an aisle seat.
Our original report posted this morning:
Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert announced this week he was taking a "leave of presence" due to the return of cancer he's been battling since 2002:
Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I'm glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.
What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.
Every critic's dream.
Ebert is the Grand Poobah of the film writing community. He's got a Pulitzer Prize and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (talk about bridging cultural divides), he's the most recognizable name in film criticism by a factor of 1,000 and he's been doing it longer than I've been alive. If you write about movies, Ebert represents the probably unattainable apex of your profession.
I never set out to be a movie critic (your requisite smart-ass answer to that statement would be, "Keep trying!" You're welcome), but I always wanted to write, so even as a kid I experimented with reviews. My first attempt, a searing take-down of the goofy, stop-motion epic Clash of the Titans, was predictably witty and incisive ("Bubo the owl is STUPID"). But I was only ever inspired to take a shot because Sneak Previews and later At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert were required weekend viewing with my family.
The only other critic who got any play in the Vonder Haar house was Joe Bob Briggs.
Fast-forward a couple decades. The Internet has opened up new avenues for aspiring freelancers and yours truly has managed to talk his way into a regular feature gig on Film Threat. Even then, I wasn't intending to review movies, but they guilted me into the gig by pointing out I was the only guy not doing it. From there, I was asked to start doing mainstream reviews, which was my jam from 2004 to 2009 (Hellboy to Star Trek). By which time I was already writing for the Press.
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The thing was, even as I was writing other pieces for the paper and "on hiatus" from reviewing, I found that I missed it. Sure, part of it was I liked getting to see movies before anyone else, but it seemed I actually enjoyed putting my opinions to paper (or keyboard, as the case may be) and comparing them to other people's, be they fellow reviewers or whoever. So, in 2010, I started reviewing movies for Art Attack. And in my first one (for the otherwise execrable I Spit On Your Grave remake), I ended up -- surprise -- quoting none other than Roger Ebert. Against my better intentions, I was still a movie critic, and actually having a good time doing it.
But the idea would probably never have first crossed my mind if not for Ebert. Film criticism always struck me as a dry, academic exercise until I watched him and Gene Siskel go at it. You and I may disagree on whether his style has "diluted" the discipline or made it easier for unqualified amateurs (*cough*) to get into the field, but you can't argue that pretty much everyone who's gotten into movie writing in the last 30 years owes Ebert a great deal of thanks.
On one final and (even more) personal note, perhaps the highest praise my writing ever received was courtesy of Ebert, who commented on one of these very Pop Rocks thingies almost exactly two years ago. For a slacker movie reviewer who fell ass backwards into his current gig, it meant more than he could probably know.
Fuck cancer. Get well soon, Roger.