The Populist Intellectual: Roger Ebert and the Gift of Seeing Deeper

I guess I don’t have to mention that Roger Ebert died. The news is, well, all over the news, as well as Facebook, Twitter and every media newsletter I receive in my email. It had only been a day since he had announced the recurrence of his cancer. He was 70 years old, not so old that I can’t imagine myself being that age and not so old that I couldn’t still think of him as a little bit young to be so ill. What impressed me was how well he took it, reviewing and blogging until the last few days of his life.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

He was involved in online communications earlier than most film critics — hell, maybe earlier than all film critics — and certainly before most people were aware that online communications existed. I was a system moderator on the proprietary online service Compuserve in the early 90s, back when the World Wide Web was a twinkle in CERN’s eye, and I remember seeing Ebert actively contributing to the Film Forum and interacting with fans there on a regular basis. He was congenial, unpretentious, and seemed to enjoy sharing opinions with movie addicts who had no credentials other than their love of film. He seemed to adapt naturally to the online medium and always seemed more at home there than other critics, perhaps fortunately given the limited mobility and speaking ability of the last years of his life. Once the Web became a part of nearly everyone’s life he began blogging there and I waited eagerly for the messages he posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes linking to his own blog or latest review, sometimes linking to his far-flung army of semi-professional critics (who always made me think of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories), sometimes just linking to something that amused him on a blog or YouTube. (His eye for movie-related YouTube videos, especially clever supercuts, was superb and I often stole his links for my own posts.)

Although like most people who didn’t live in Chicago, I discovered Ebert through his At the Movies television program, I really didn’t get to know his writing until he began contributing his collected reviews to Microsoft’s wonderful Cinemania CD-ROMs in the mid-90s. Ebert always seemed to go easier on films than the other critics in Cinemania did and the star ratings he assigned to films were almost invariably one star higher than others. At first glance this made him seem rather less rigorous in his critical abilities, but after I’d read literally hundreds of his reviews I realized that he was more rigorous and perceptive. He simply saw more deeply into movies than other people did. Even when I disagreed with his opinion on a movie, his carefully thought-out and brilliantly persuasive reviews could convince me that his opinion was the right one and mine was wrong. He’d simply noticed things I hadn’t and he elevated the films in my eyes.

I wish I could say something personal, like “Roger, I’ll miss you,” but I didn’t know him personally and only exchanged messages with him on Compuserve once or twice (though to his credit he would respond). I’ll miss his reviews and blogs, though, and his collection of links to deserving Web sites. I don’t know that Ebert was the greatest reviewer who ever lived — there are far too many contenders for that title — and he wasn’t the wittiest, a title that should go to someone like Anthony Lane in The New Yorker who writes the most hysterical takedowns in the business. But if it’s possible to be a populist intellectual, then that was what Ebert was, in the sense that he could write reviews that connected with the ordinary film viewer while never dumbing down his opinions to the much-derided popular level. His was the voice of the intelligent common man who just happened to know a hell of a lot about movies and understood how to help those of us without his piercing intellect see what it was that he could see in films that we quite often could not.