Well, this sucks.
Roger Ebert died just hours ago of complications from a long fight with cancer.
I didn’t know Roger Ebert personally—though I did meet him once at a book signing less than a year before the cancer took his jaw—but I had a world of respect for him, and the number of lives he’s enriched is inestimable.
Over the next few days, the internet will be replete with obituaries written by fans who, like me, related to Ebert’s work the way we relate to the friends whose conversation we most enjoy. (I don’t know anyone who always agreed with him, but his reviews were always substantive and fun to wrestle with.) Before too many of those get written, though, I want to let you know why you should care:
Roger Ebert was probably one of the most widely engaged art critics ever. Part of that is an accident of history: His career spanned the mid-1960s to early 2013, the most populous half-century in human history. And at the same moment that traditional media were at their peak in terms of the percentage of that large population they could reach with a single, unified message, his newspaper columns and television shows were syndicated across the country (and around the world).
Ebert’s nearly peerless knowledge of cinema history and deep appreciation for its potential as an art form made him someone academics and film students read for fun when they put down Aristotle and Kael. Three generations of writers, directors, producers, actors and photographers—the people who shape our cultural values and teach us how to live and feel—have had their hearts and minds shaped by Roger Ebert.
Meanwhile, a contagious, indefatigable love for the experience of going to a movie and being transported into another world made Ebert someone that everyone outside of the academy and the arts turned to for advice. Ebert never stopped loving movies. He never lost his ability to get lost in the stories playing out on the screen in front of him.
Roger Ebert’s greatest accomplishment was not fifty years of separating wheat from chaff. No, his great legacy is that he rescued art from the prison of the arthouse. He defied the notion that entertainment needed to be diversion, or that we couldn’t get swept away by stories that also evoked deeper truths. For Ebert, a film’s ambition was not anathema to its ability to be damn fun to watch.
He knew as much about cinema as almost anyone else in history, but he didn’t need to flaunt it. He didn’t build his public, professional or personal identity around being someone who knows a lot about film. His public and professional identity congealed around the fact that he knew how to enjoy film. That crucial difference is how he taught millions of friends—er, readers—to not be afraid of classics, to let themselves get lost in Casablanca and enjoy the mind-bending ride of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s why he championed breathtaking thrillers like Dark City. And that passion is what enabled him to write some of the most blisteringly funny eviscerations of crap-tastic movies ever written.
If you had to boil 50 years of Roger Ebert’s writing about film down to a single message, it is this: You don’t need to be afraid of things that matter. For all of life’s messiness, ambiguity and hard lessons, you can still enjoy it passionately.
In the morning, we’re all going to wake up in a world without Roger Ebert, and that’s a pretty damn good reason for us to all be a little sad for each other. Don’t worry, though, because he left us plenty of artists who we’d want to help us through the grief.