RIP, Roger Ebert

“Roger Ebert dies at 70 after battle with cancer,” reports the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper where he made his home for three decades:

For a film with a daring director, a talented cast, a captivating plot or, ideally, all three, there could be no better advocate than Roger Ebert, who passionately celebrated and promoted excellence in film while deflating the awful, the derivative, or the merely mediocre with an observant eye, a sharp wit and a depth of knowledge that delighted his millions of readers and viewers.

“No good film is too long,” he once wrote, a sentiment he felt strongly enough about to have engraved on pens. “No bad movie is short enough.”

Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.

Always technically savvy — he was an early investor in Google — Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 “Person of the Year” from the Webby Awards, which noted that “his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.” His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers.

Unfortunately, Twitter revealed the intense far left biases and raging misanthropy inside Ebert, which did much to tarnish the family-friendly middlebrow tone of his previous movie criticism. Ebert’s embrace of the unfiltered medium erased much of the good will he developed through his years of co-hosting his weekly TV series At the Movies with Gene Siskel, his fellow Chicago-based critic, who himself had passed away in 1999.

Ironically, both men warned of the dangers of political correctness in the early 1990s:

GENE SISKEL: You have to summon up the courage to say what you honestly feel. And it’s not easy. There’s a whole new world called political correctness that’s going on, and that is death to a critic to participate in that.

EBERT: Political correctness is the fascism of the ‘90s. It’s kind of this rigid feeling that you have to keep your ideas and your ways of looking at things within very narrow boundaries, or you’ll offend someone. Certainly one of the purposes of journalism is to challenge just that kind of thinking. And certainly one of the purposes of criticism is to break boundaries; it’s also one of the purposes of art. So that if a young journalist, 18, 19, 20, 21, an undergraduate tries to write politically correctly, what they’re really doing is ventriloquism.

I suspect that will be the Ebert that will be remembered by posterity, ironically, before he allowed his opinions to be consumed by what he correctly dubbed “the fascism of the 1990s” — and beyond.

(Clicking on the Drudge Report, where I first saw news of Ebert’s death, I also hope the horrific photo of Ebert after his cancer, with much of his jaw removed will somehow be removed from circulation. But alas, our less-than-middlebrow culture won’t allow that to happen unfortunately.)

Update: At the Conversation, John Sexton quotes this beautiful passage from Ebert, recorded for the commentary on the DVD of Dark City (the thinking man’s Matrix) before PC consumed Ebert’s journalism:

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More: Before Ebert’s middlebrow movie critic phase, and final days as an archliberal polemicist, he was a screenwriter for Russ Meyers’ late ’60s and early ’70s sexploitation movies, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert wrote the camp classic line, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!”, which would be spoofed by Mike Myers in the first Austin Powers movie — which Ebert himself mentioned in his review.

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Kathy Shaidle has that phase of Ebert’s career covered, in a post with quotes and videos. Plus a great catch, finding a remarkably unthoughtful gaffe by the Chicago Sun-Times in Ebert’s obit.