When Roger Ebert announced last week that he’d be taking a “leave of presence” from his writing due to his declining health, even readers who knew he’d been in rough shape since his hip fracture last December were stunned. For those of us who grew up with Siskel & Ebert as a staple of late night syndication and followed the Pulitzer-winning personality through his rebirth as an online guru in the mid-2000s, his reviews of new releases were a reliable touchstone to test our own arguments against. So steady was his workload since his return to writing, after his last major surgery in 2006, that his death a few days after that note seemed less of a shock than the idea that he’d no longer be at the movies.
Unlike the work of Andrew Sarris, whose death last June inspired reappraisals of the auteur theory he ushered into film criticism with his book The American Cinema, Ebert’s writing never had a strong conceptual basis. He pitched his criticism more as personable consumer reportage, born from his identity as a newspaperman at the Chicago Sun-Times. The most dogmatic he got was in his opposition to film theory, 90% of which he famously deemed “bullshit.” (“I thought I would be an English professor,” he mused more charitably in his wistful review of Wonder Boys: “Then I got into this game.”)
That knock on the academy, from a wonderfully digressive essay on Synecdoche, New York, has been cited often as people try to sort Ebert’s critical legacy. But the more definitive self-portrait lies further down the paragraph, in his characterization of the best way to introduce someone to a difficult but rich text like Ulysses. “You start it and start it and start it,” he wrote, until “someone tells you, ‘It’s an attempt to record one day in the life of some people in Dublin, mostly focusing on Leopold Bloom….Try finding somebody Irish to read the tricky bits aloud.’”
Though he was championed for that common touch, Ebert also came under fire for his populism, his laxness about details, and his perceived softening in recent years – his uncharacteristic warmth toward the likes of Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties. But his more significant transformations, into an autobiographer and public intellectual, were expressed in a series of frank, keenly observed essays about living with cancer and disability (collected in his 2011 memoir Life Itself), first published not in the Sun-Times but in a blog simply called Roger Ebert’s Journal.
In the final stage of both his writing and his life, then, Ebert became something more than the syndicated critic of note: one of the finest American chroniclers of illness, and a godfather to online criticism. The first major print critic to recognize not just talented online writers but the open source possibilities of the medium, Ebert’s generosity and foresight is hard to overestimate. It’s no wonder so many of his surrogate godchildren mourn him by filing tributes on Twitter and blogs, the venues he helped legitimize.