What Roger Ebert Taught Us

Roger Ebert (1942-2013) transcended his identity as the nation's most respected movie critic to teach valuable lessons about cinema, technology, and finally about life and death.

Born in Urbana, Illinois, Ebert studied journalism and English before taking a job with the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. Initially a reporter, he became the paper's film critic a year later, at age 24, and won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975. That same year he began reviewing movies on public television with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. Their program, with its signature two thumbs up or down—or in their most exciting moments, one of each—started with a local affiliate and went on to become a hit on PBS.

While Ebert dallied in screenwriting, with two scripts for Russ Meyer making it onto the silver screen, his heart was always in criticism. He took on the role of the everyman, the unpretentious guy next door whose opinions of movies were accessible, well argued, and free of cant. "Your intellect may be confused," he once wrote, "but your emotions will never lie to you." He applied this critical sensibility not only to the art of movies, but to the technology of movies as well, and some of that writing is worth rereading now.

Ebert did not uncritically accept every supposed technological advance the moviemaking and TV-manufacturing industries dished out. He saved his sharpest barbs for 3D, after having seen it come and go several times during his four and a half decades as a critic. Among his essays on the subject was a bombshell that appeared in Newsweek under the headline "Why I Hate 3-D (and You Should Too)." He launched his broadside by calling 3D "a waste of a perfectly good dimension," adding:

Hollywood's current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for....

When you look at a 2-D movie, it's already in 3-D as far as your mind is concerned. When you see Lawrence of Arabia growing from a speck as he rides toward you across the desert, are you thinking, "Look how slowly he grows against the horizon" or "I wish this were 3D"? Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension. Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing.

For an alternative perspective, see the point-by-point rebuttal by our colleague Scott Wilkinson.

Ebert continued his campaign against 3D with a later piece in his Sun-Times blog, quoting in depth a letter from film editor Walter Murch, who complained that "3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented us with this problem before."

"Case closed," said Ebert's headline.

Having watched films on film for more than half a century, Ebert was predictably cool to digital projection, which he looked upon as a Trojan horse for 3D and higher ticket prices: "Digital projectors have been force-fed to theaters by an industry hungry for the premium prices it can charge for 3D films. As I've been arguing for a long time, this amounts to charging you more for an inferior picture.... If as much attention were paid to exhibition as to marketing, that would be an investment in the future. People would fall back in love with the movies. Short-sighted, technically illiterate penny-pinchers are wounding a great art form."

The film critic was selective in his approval of digital effects in filmmaking. "I have nothing against digital technology," he wrote. "It tricks the eye just as matte paintings and miniatures did. What I'm concerned about is that filmmakers take it for granted.... The best effects are those that are entirely story-driven and character-driven.... I'm suggesting that we need to rein in promiscuous CGI. We need more attention to effect, less trust in effects."

He was also not a fan of video games. "No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form," he wrote. He went on to give considerable space to a dissenting opinion, but finally concluded: "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?... Do they require validation?"

All that notwithstanding, Ebert embraced some technologies wholeheartedly, especially when they supported self expression. He was an avid user of Facebook and Twitter. And when repeated cancer surgeries ravaged his face and neck, leaving him without a functioning set of vocal cords, he learned a new way to speak via voice synthesizer. The Oprah site summed it up: "Cancer took his voice but technology gave it back."

The last thing Ebert taught us was how to approach death with serenity. "I do not fear death," he wrote in Salon:

I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.... I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state....

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins' theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes....

"Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.

For more of Ebert's wit and wisdom, see Wikiquote.

MatthewWeflen's picture

As a Chicagoan for the last 27 years, I can confirm that Ebert was a respected fixture around town. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his particular opinions, any reasonable person had to respect his integrity and his strong voice.

I know I checked his movie reviews religiously before a home video purchase, though I disagreed on whether video games are art. He's wrong about digital projection, and the jury is still out on 3D.

Any way you slice it, he will be missed.

Jarod's picture

Really sad to see him go. I remember growing up in the 80s and seeing him on TV reviewing movies with Siskel and they would always disagree lol. He really was a true media movie icon wether you liked him or hated him.