Okay, I’d suspected just-deceased Roger Ebert — iconic, Chicago Sun Times film-critic/tv personality — skewed left in his politics. It wasn’t until the brash snipings of his last couple years, however, that his overt Liberalism became splenetically clear to me.
For quite a while, the garrulous Chicagoan’s weekly film-review program, in all its various iterations, was must-see TV for me. From 1975-1999, he and late cohort Gene Siskel held forth on all things cinematic. Their trademark (and trademarked!) “thumbs up/thumbs down” verdict on specific movies’ artistic/entertainment worthiness became a vital factor in the ticket-buying decisions of multitudes. Moviefone’s Gary Susman designated those digits “the most powerful thumbs in showbiz.”
Upon Siskel’s untimely death, Richard Roeper stepped in to the seat across from Ebert, and they continued trading silver-screen opinions until complications from Ebert’s thyroid cancer treatments interrupted in 2006. At that point, facially disfigured and suddenly mute, Ebert limited himself to written film notices — in which capacity he served prolifically — until his unexpected passing last Friday, aged 70.
Because I tuned in so faithfully to catch Ebert’s musings about the day’s cinematic offerings, and further found myself regularly agreeing with his film reflections, I actually came to develop a bit of long-distance affection for the guy. I looked forward to keeping company with him for thirty minutes each week, staying up, via the little screen, on his latest big-screen cogitations.
This, mind you, made his recent, much-bandied-about outbreaks of Leftist hogwash all the more irksome (and disappointing) to me.
Nonetheless, Ebert stirred in me an ever-deepening appreciation for the discipline of “film criticism” — “the notion that movies matter enough for us to keep talking about them long after the house lights come up” (Susman).
I enjoyed not only his aesthetic evaluations — is a particular movie thrilling, transporting, beautiful, skillfully-rendered, etc.? — but also his analysis of films’ themes and potential impact on hearts and minds. AP critic Christy Lemire put it succinctly: “[H]e could cut to the heart of what made a movie work, or not.”
A member of my extended family scoffs at the film critics’ profession as mildly dishonorable — “They make a living running down someone else’s work.” To which I’d rejoin: a) Movie reviewers don’t only knock lousy flicks; they endorse meritorious ones, too; b) film critics supply a valuable commodity: guidance for potential audience members about whether a cinematic product is worth the time investment and entrance fee.
Isn’t rescuing someone from a wasted evening and wasted dollars a respectable service?
I’d guess Roger Ebert thought so — while also, sometimes, surprising his readers/viewers …
To his dying day, the Urbana, Illinois native insisted that, although by no means an orthodox Christian, he couldn’t be categorized as “atheist” or even “agnostic”. Nursing a sentimental attachment to the Roman Catholic faith of his upbringing, Ebert, nevertheless, enigmatically referred to the belief-in-a-Creator aspect of his church as “the God problem”.
“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel,” he professed, “with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God.”
Loophole? I suppose, that is one way of characterizing it …