In 1999, I was working on a newspaper article that examined the reception of George Lucas’ first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, by the movie going public and by film critics. I interviewed a number of critics for the article, including New York critic Godfrey Cheshire, who then put me in touch with Roger Ebert. Although Mr. Ebert was at the Cannes Film Festival when I made my interview request, he was kind enough to make time for me; the interview was conducted by email because we were in different time zones, and Mr. Ebert provided thoughtful, reasoned answers to each and every question.
Due to a dispute with the editor I was working with over the terms she’d agreed to, the article didn’t make it into the Sunday edition of the paper, which was what it was originally slated for. Because of the time sensitive and topical nature of the material, I didn’t really have any incentive to try to place the article with another newspaper or magazine, so it was shelved. I forgot about it entirely until I found out on April 4 that Roger Ebert had passed away.
I’m offering these excerpts from my unpublished interview with Mr. Ebert here, essentially unedited, although I’ve stripped out the questions each paragraph was paired with to let his comments stand on their own, as I believe that they provide, altogether, a cogent summary of the working philosophy that shaped Mr. Ebert’s outlook as a film critic.
Critics have seen more movies and thought more about the movies than most members of the public. They also have a better overview of film history, and, dare it be said, more demanding standards. And of course the average movie critic likes movies more than the average moviegoer; that’s why we devote our lives and careers to them. However, the notion that critics think movies are an art form, while the public considers them consumable entertainment, is insulting to the public and inaccurate about critics. Obviously some films are art, some are entertainment, some are both, some are neither, and both critics and moviegoers know that perfectly well.
The critic’s primary function is to be a teacher. The critic should also be an entertainer, a polemicist, a scourge, a fan, a skeptic, and a friend. Editors often make the mistake of believing that critics should “reflect” the views of the public. But nobody needs to read what they already know, and such critics lose readers, because readers can quickly sense when they are being condescended to. Since most readers do not attend most movies, the critic above all should provide reviews that can be read for themselves as entertainment, commentary, or instruction.
Most movies tell stories in visual ways, and there is a visual language of film, which we all instinctively react to, most often when it is handled badly. The mistake many moviegoers and critics make is to discuss a film in terms of its story, without reference to how it was visualized. I refer you to what I smilingly call Ebert’s Law: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” To understand this is to stop being a passive witness of film, and to become a critic.
Like so many people, I was introduced to Mr. Ebert’s reviews through the TV show that he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, At the Movies, which I watched religiously on PBS while I was a young teen. Mr. Ebert informed my early ideas about the visual language of film and provided an impetus for me to delve into film criticism when I got to college, and I’ve been impressed, over the years, by the depth and breadth of his writing, which is considerably more nuanced than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach to reviewing that he employed with Gene Siskel on television.
In spite of a long and painful battle with cancer, Mr. Ebert never stopped writing about movies. Now that we’ve entered a digital epoch when salaried film critics are quickly and quietly being replaced by the votes and comments of a mob of unpaid hoi polloi who post their opinions online, Mr. Ebert’s advocacy for film critics and film criticism will be dearly missed. Mr. Ebert died on April 4, 2013, at the age of seventy; the Chicago Tribune, the competitor of the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper Mr. Ebert wrote for for forty-five years, referred to him as “a film critic with the soul of a poet” in its April 5 obituary. He was the author of seventeen books, and he was the first journalist to receive the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism; a public memorial will be held in his honor at the Chicago Theater on Thursday, April 11, in Chicago, the city Mr. Ebert called home.