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Roger Ebert and why he mattered to movie lovers everywhere

Roger Ebert may have started out as a film critic. But before his death Thursday he had become much more: Television host (his shows ran on and off in various iterations from 1975-2011), pioneer of a 15-year-old film festival, "Ebertfest," popularizer of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" manner of fast reviews, author of 15 books, screenwriter ("Beyond the Valley of the Dolls") and hearty cultural critic (his online journal covered everything from climate change to religion to everything good (and bad) about Chicago ... and beyond).

He was a big man, bigger than life -- but never in pursuit of his own stardom. The films were everything, and in the end, he was clearly never happier than when he was in the presence of the art of the movie.

"Film criticism is important because films are important," he said in a 2005 interview. "Films are important because they are the art form of the 20th Century ... They can be both a good influence on society and a negative influence."

That was the sort of approach that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first film critic to do so, in 1975. As he saw it, Ebert's mission was not just to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to movies; he wasn't focused on merely elevating highbrow work and finding new ways to denigrate big-budget blockbusters. He also acknowledged that his perception of what a "good" film might be would change over the years, just as he as a person would change. He stood by his critical decisions, even when he himself was criticized himself for a lack of consistency.

"I am uninterested in being 'consistent,'" he wrote

But he was consistent in several areas: He routinely opposed the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system, angered that a film like "Whale Rider" was rated PG-13 and "The Passion of the Christ" wasn't given an X rating for its violence. He also regularly debated with video game creators and players over whether games could be art. 

The reason anyone wanted to debate him in the first place, however, is that Roger Ebert found a way to make movie criticism interesting and relevant, an art form of its own. His arguments on "At the Movies" with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) made them both household names, taking their debates on to other TV arenas like "The Tonight Show." They made it possible for the average viewer to understand that two very opposing takes on the same film could be right at the same time. The pair, and later Ebert by himself, influenced generations of up-and-coming critics.

"For those of us practicing criticism on a regular basis, Ebert was both a figurative and literal mentor who was graceful in his ability to spend time responding to the requests of hundreds of aspiring critics over the years, including this one," wrote Indiewire's Eric Kohn, noting that Ebert moved with the times -- he Tweeted and moved onto the Internet to interact with those next-generation critics.

Meanwhile, Ebert's books ranged from summations of the best of the best to best-of compilations to fun titles like "I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie" (2000). He even co-authored (with Daniel Curley) a book on small walks in London in 1986, and in 2011 finally won a New Yorker cartoon caption contest, a long-time goal. That expansive, Renaissance Man-level polymath approach to films and the greater world beyond also elevated him from being "just" a newspaper's film critic. 

Ebert's illness, then, in its own way, was just another area to explore and understand through writing and engagement. His disinterest in hiding out -- even when the cancer operations severely altered his appearance -- was undoubtedly courageous, but it literally put a new face on his career: Yes, he was still writing reviews, but his writing now included discussing his illness and the greater world beyond. When he announced Tuesday that he would be taking a step back from his regular writing duties, calling it a "leave of presence," he clearly had every intention of continuing to write, but the topics would be on his own terms.

In the end, Ebert may not have been a "critic's critic" the way legend Pauline Kael was -- but he was the popular man's film lover: Never just a critic, never just a fan, always a blend of both. His last published words (from his "leave of presence" post) say it all: "Thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

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