Roger Ebert was the most revered film critic of his generation and someone who could decide the success of a picture with one of his sharp, witty reviews. With a writing style rarely matched in the field of film criticism, he could be equally scathing and lauding to films he felt were worth such measures. Obviously, as a film magazine, Diorama owes people like Ebert a huge debt in elevating the skill to a respected level.
My familiarity with Ebert started when I was around fifteen and I had first begun to have my life taken over by my obsession with movies. I thought then that I wanted to be a writer or a director so I could try and equal what I was seeing at the cinemas. I got an IMDB account and would spend hours looking through lists of films considered great, so I could watch them myself. Sometimes I was transfixed; sometimes I was disappointed. Sometimes the strength of feeling I felt was so intense that I felt the need to broadcast my thoughts on the review pages of IMDB. My first reviews were mainly childish tantrums at films I thought were overrated, accusing people of being idiots if they thought otherwise. I didn’t realise it then but I was an unintentional troll.
Gradually, I calmed down and stopped writing such dull diatribes. Instead, I wanted to have a dialogue with someone who could try and convince me of a film’s perceived greatness. I found Ebert. He was always the most commented reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes and his reviews were consistently the most read on IMDB too. I read some reviews of his on films I loved and he had a habit of writing what my head was trying to scream at me as I stared at blank pages, wondering how to convey why I loved the movie so much. Yet where Ebert really intrigued me was with films I hated. One of my least favourite films is Million Dollar Baby, the melodramatic, corny, schmaltzy mess of a film by Clint Eastwood. Yet Ebert gave it his maximum rating. I still remember my annoyance at his first sentence, ‘Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true.’ I read on and disagreed with every single word he wrote. It’s very difficult to explain but I felt a strange sense of betrayal at having Ebert, the most eminent critic of all, disagree with me. I wondered if there was a weakness inside of me at being unable to comprehend the film’s greatness. I lashed out and wrote my final angry review on IMDB, criticising all the idiots who loved the film and that Pauline Kael (another great critic) would definitely have agreed with me had she not died twenty years ago.
Yet as time went by, I kept rediscovering Ebert, spending nights reading his eloquent reviews, after watching several films in a row. I became more interested in Ebert’s opinions than the films themselves. I wanted to be like Ebert. I got to know which films he would like, which films he would hate and which films he would disregard as boring genre staples. In the latter stages of his life, I could accurately predict how many stars he would give a film, after seeing it myself. Even some films I hated, I knew Ebert would love, such as The Impossible from last year. It was melodramatic and schmaltzy, which were things Ebert treated with far less severity than myself. When I saw his 4 star review, I did not get angry like I did with Million Dollar Baby. I just smiled and rolled my eyes as though it was a good friend lending me his opinion.
Ebert showed me that criticism is all about individuality. No more did I worry about my inability to understand what makes some films great. If the critic manages to develop their own aesthetic for writing film criticism and adheres to it, then the reader will understand their points of view and enjoy their writing more as a result. Ebert’s aesthetic was summed up by his argument that “It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it.” You can read any of Ebert’s reviews and notice he is far more interested in the subtext and little details rather than just the action on screen.
With Ebert’s passing, the world of film criticism has a large void. As an aspiring film critic, being informed of his death was more gut-wrenching than most others, simply because I felt like I knew him and understood him. He was always the first guest on my list at fantasy dinner parties and I dreamed of one day arguing with him about the merits of Million Dollar Baby. As his output decreased with his cancer, I found other critics like Wesley Morris, Anthony Lane and Peter Bradshaw but none came close to the personal affiliation I felt with Ebert, despite my consistent misgivings over his opinions. It is a curiosity of human nature that we can feel so close to someone we never meet just by reading their words and critiques. To those who argue that it is pointless to try and rate art, I tell them to read reviews by Ebert because he shows it can become an art in itself.