I first learned that legendary film critic Roger Ebert had died last week during a quick scroll through Facebook to see what inspirational, political and/or religious sayings and images my "friends" wanted to share with me at that particular moment. A classmate of mine posted a link to a story announcing Ebert had succumbed to his long battle with cancer. In her status box, my classmate wrote, "This really makes me sad!"
Others commented on her post and, appropriately, the first person who did simply wrote, "Thumbs down!"
Anyone who knows anything about Roger Ebert and his impact on pop culture, specifically films, over the decades, needs no explanation detailing why any reference to thumbs connected to Ebert is appropriate.
Ebert, along with Gene Siskel, who died years ago in his early 50s, were for many years the most influential movie critics on the planet. If they gave a movie their trademark "thumbs up" stamp of approval, there was a far more than decent chance it was a pretty good flick. If they gave it two "enthusiastic" thumbs up, or two thumbs up..."way up!" you knew the film was probably in contention for an Oscar, and maybe even on the verge of becoming a timeless classic. On the flip side, if they gave a movie a thumbs-down review, you’d likely think twice before seeing it.
But the two critics were at their most interesting when they disagreed, which was more often than you might think. They'd sit there in the darkened, empty theater/studio, watch a clip, and then go at it. If one liked the film and the other didn't, it made for great television because they were two pop culture icons whose opinions had instant credibility and demanded your respect. Although on some level they always saw each other as competitors, you could tell that even when they vehemently disagreed with a film’s merits, there was always mutual respect.
If the two critics split and gave a film one thumbs-up and one thumbs-down, well, then it was truly a must-see, because what's more fun than watching a movie and then debating its high and low points afterward?
But to pigeonhole Ebert as simply a film critic is inaccurate. Sure, that's how he came to be known to the masses, when the ink-stained newspaper film critic in Chicago expanded his act to television. But Ebert was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, and a frequent social commentator whose opinion was automatically relevant simply because you knew his views were coming from an intelligent, well-researched individual.
In addition to talking, the heavy-set Ebert, who never looked entirely comfortable in his sport coat and sweater sitting in that movie theater chair on TV, loved to eat and he loved to drink the best booze money could buy.
Page 2 of 2 - That's why it seemed so especially cruel when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer several years ago, and complications from surgery resulted in him losing portions of his jaw and, really, the bottom of his face. From that point on Ebert couldn't speak, he couldn't eat and he couldn't drink.
So how did he deal with that?
Well, Ebert, if anything, wrote more and became more outspoken, whether the subject was a new film or something else. He left this world in true Ebert fashion as well, when, one day before he died, he announced his cancer had returned and that he was taking not a "leave of absence" from his work, but a leave of "presence." He said we'd hear from him again, but a day later, he was gone.
When was the last time you debated whether or not to go to a movie and sought out a specific film critic's review for a little insight? It's been a long time, hasn't it? How many film critics can you even name? I read the critics at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press in the Twin Cities, and I always read Peter Travers in Rolling Stone magazine, but that's mostly because he gets so creative when he rips to shreds the latest sequel or rehashed remake in the latest line of big-budget blockbusters to be regurgitated by the big Hollywood movie studios.
With digital media and access to all the information we could ever want or need available instantly, if we’ve learned anything in this techno-time it’s that everyone’s a critic of something. And far too many of them are people who should have gotten a job and moved out of their parents’ basement long, long ago, but instead feel they’re contributing more to the world by writing grammar-challenged blogs or spewing their negativity to the world via YouTube videos recorded by the webcam mounted on their computer.
In the writing business, the constant fear is that all these overmatched people delivering this constant barrage of opinions and information diminishes what paid professional writers do. But, when someone like Roger Ebert comes and then goes, that fear instantly evaporates, even if only for a moment.