brent johnson remembers his favorite entertainment writer …
For some movie critics, their only intent is meticulously crafting prose that sounds ingenious, transcendent, or even pretentious — the kind that screams, “Look at how smart I am!”
Others simply tell you whether a movie is worth seeing, sacrificing any kind of spark to their writing.
Roger Ebert was neither. He was the kind of film critic who both enthralled journalists and informed moviegoers. And that is a tough thing to accomplish.
Ebert died today at the way-too-soon age of 70, the victim of cancer. Over the last decade, he had lost part of a his jaw, as well as the ability to speak and eat. But he kept writing — and thank God for that.
Most people know Ebert for the TV show he hosted with fellow Chicago newspaper critic Gene Siskel — and whether their thumbs would give a movie clout or not. But more than anything, Ebert used the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times — and later RogerEbert.com — to help make print movie criticism a populist art form. He didn’t write for the intellectuals. He didn’t write blurbs for those rushing to the theater. He wrote with crystal-clear passion about his love — or hate — for movies. That is why he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. That is why his reviews are so relatable.
That is why he’s my favorite entertainment writer of all time. Every time I saw a film, the first thing I did when I got home was read his review. Always after the viewing, never before — I didn’t want to taint my opinion heading in. But I did want to see if Ebert saw things the way I did.
Just read his infamous review for Rob Reiner’s 1994 flop North:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.
“I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery. I list those titles as an incantation against this one.
“North is a bad film — one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover — possibly sooner than I will.”
In the span of three paragraphs, Ebert accomplishes three things all journalists should set out to do: 1. Write snappily enough to draw a reader’s attention. 2. Write to tell your readers something insightful. 3. Show a love for what you’re doing.
I would list many more examples of Ebert’s genius, but I can’t access them right now. In the hour after his death was announced, his website crashed — a sign of just how much everyone admires his impact on the film and journalism worlds. But that’s okay. The beautiful thing is knowing that Roger Ebert’s work is so important that people will be reading his words for years to come.