Variety’s Justin Chang Remembers Roger Ebert: A ‘Crash’ Course in Criticism

Viewpoints differ, but the qualities Ebert brought to film criticism were a beacon

Roger Ebert

I will always regret that I had only one direct exchange with Roger Ebert, and it took place via email. In that brief but (for me) significant correspondence, he proved as kind and gracious a soul as you would expect. Personally, I wish I’d behaved better.

It was on March 6, 2006, the morning after “Crash” won the Oscar for best picture — an upset in every sense for those of us who were rooting for the presumptive favorite, “Brokeback Mountain.” The resulting online uproar was so intense that it spurred Ebert to write a vigorous defense of Paul Haggis’ film, decrying “the fury of the ‘Crash’-lash” and accusing the hardcore “Brokeback” fans of acting in bad faith. More or less proving him right, I lashed out. I fired off a crankily defensive email, lambasting someone I had read and respected for ages but never met, and whom I would have addressed on any other occasion with nothing less than stammering politeness.

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To my surprise, Ebert saw fit not only to publish my letter in his Movie Answer Man column, but also to write me a personal reply, in which he thanked me for getting in touch, conceded some of my points while gently reasserting his own, and told me he respected my work. Shamed but not silenced, I sent back a bloated apology, which occasioned another polite response and an altogether friendlier, more harmonious back-and-forth. I may have started us off on the wrong foot, but Roger redeemed our encounter with his characteristic good nature and genuine delight in engaging with his readers — the very qualities that made him, for so many of us, an ideal companion at the movies.

My takeaway lesson was that an act of grace, especially one coming from an elder and a superior, will always prevail over a difference of opinion. And it was the consummate grace of Ebert’s voice — that inimitable blend of wit, erudition, amiability and common sense — that made him our most important and indispensable film critic, someone you loved to read no matter how violently you disagreed with him. Like all great thinkers and writers, he rendered irrelevant the small-minded tyranny of right and wrong answers through his vivid, literate and unpretentious command of language. His thumbs may have changed the face of criticism, but it is Ebert’s writing for which he will be most fondly and significantly remembered.

We all have our favorites — in my case, derived from hours spent not watching the various TV shows he made famous with Gene Siskel (although I did that, too), but poring over the review archives on the Chicago Sun-Times’ website. I remember watching “Dead Poets Society” in high school and feeling pretty much alone in despising it; I found a kindred spirit in Ebert, who memorably tore the film to shreds: “I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.” A few years later he nailed the beauty and heartache of “The Sweet Hereafter,” noting that Atom Egoyan’s intricate, time-shuffling film had been constructed “in the simplest possible way. It isn’t about the beginning and end of the plot, but about the beginning and end of the emotions.”

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Ebert always looked for emotion. He could eviscerate a movie with the best of them, but in many ways his work offered precisely the opposite of the cruel cynicism that is assumed to be the critic’s stock-in-trade. In more recent years, he seemed to err increasingly on the side of charity, adopting a sometimes mystifyingly liberal hand with four-star reviews — a generosity that nonetheless went hand-in-hand with his essentially optimistic view of the medium.

Stories of his support for younger critics are legion, but even as he was fostering aspiring talent, he never stopped showing us how it was done. Too often, when we talk about art, we do so in tones of overly hushed, self-serious reverence, placing it on a forbidding pedestal. As someone who can lapse into all manner of contorted academic language to explain why readers should care about Hou Hsiao-hsien or Nuri Bilge Ceylan, I envy the exquisite simplicity with which Ebert can nail a film like Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”: “If you have not walked out after 20 or 30 minutes, you will thereafter not be able to move from your seat.” Without ever once deviating from a conversational tone, Ebert could make watching Welles, Bresson, Ozu and Mizoguchi sound like nothing less than the purest joy.

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In the hands of someone with an unprecedented command of our collective moviegoing minds, this is no small thing. I wanted to applaud when he made the bold decision to include a recent release, “The Tree of Life,” on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time for the decennial Sight & Sound poll. A critic of his age and stature may well have waited to see if Terrence Malick’s film stood the test of time, but Ebert was nothing if not a forward thinker. Before many of us knew Twitter from Facebook, he had already adapted his work to suit the demands of an online following that grew only more massive as time went on.

It is impossible to quantify the influence that Roger Ebert has had on anyone who cares even remotely about movies and movie criticism. But why limit it to such a narrow range of interest? Inside or outside the often insular, self-protective ranks of film critics, I can think of no writer who has commanded as wide a readership, or been more deeply invested in fostering a dialogue with that readership — a dialogue that overflowed freely into matters of art, science, religion, morality and politics. There was nothing Ebert couldn’t write about, just as there was seemingly no medium through which his work could not be transmitted.

It is one of the saddest ironies of Ebert’s long, courageous battle with cancer that he was robbed of one of the very things that defined him most: his voice. I speak, gratefully, of his voice in the physical sense, for his real voice never left us and never will. Tirelessly reviewing, blogging and tweeting until the bitter end, he came perhaps as close as anyone can claim to having triumphed over the physical onset of death and its cruelest deprivations. For anyone who ever longed to say something of value about the movies and the world they reflect, he is no less an inspiration in death than he was in life.