Skip to main content

What the Internet owes to Roger Ebert

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
April 5, 2013 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
Film critics Gene Siskel, left, and Roger Ebert pose in this undated photograph. Ebert died on Thursday, April 4, according to his employer, the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert had taken a leave of absence on April 2 after a hip fracture was revealed to be cancer. Film critics Gene Siskel, left, and Roger Ebert pose in this undated photograph. Ebert died on Thursday, April 4, according to his employer, the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert had taken a leave of absence on April 2 after a hip fracture was revealed to be cancer.
HIDE CAPTION
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
Roger Ebert: A life in review
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: News of film critic Roger Ebert's death lamented across Internet
  • He says in many ways blogs owe existence to example set by Ebert, critic co-host Siskel
  • He says they changed view of what a critic does, made it less formidable
  • Seymour: Ebert's approach was openhearted enough to assess all manner of cinema

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Roger Ebert's death, coming so soon after he announced he was curtailing his movie-reviewing schedule because of recurring cancer, is being greeted—especially across the Internet--with widespread shock, and the kind of grief one feels when one loses a longtime neighbor, a trusted friend, a beloved teacher whose lessons may not have had an immediate impact but became more meaningful with time.

Who could have imagined the American people would ever feel that way about a critic, any critic?

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Few could have as far back as 1975 when Ebert, the prize-winning film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, first teamed up with his Chicago Tribune competitor Gene Siskel for a locally broadcast weekly series, "Coming to a Theater Near You."

Over the next 24 years, their weekly half-hour of movie clips and clipped arguments became an ever-expanding nationwide franchise. It catapulted both men to fame and riches befitting media icons -- and altered preconceived notions of what a critic looked and sounded like.

Opinion: Ebert's sheer love of life

In fact, it's only natural the blogosphere should feel the pain of Ebert's leaving. One could say that blogs of all shapes, sizes and subjects owe their existence in part to the examples set by Siskel and Ebert.

Long before Siskel and Ebert helped embed the "thumbs up/thumbs down" judgment meme in television folklore, critics were viewed in the popular imagination as fastidious bullies, often packing European accents and high-end vocabularies, with nothing but bad will to deliver to anything they saw or heard. The type was best embodied in past epochs by the performances of George Sanders or Clifton Webb, who portrayed acid-tongued theater critics in, respectively, "All About Eve" (1950) and "Laura" (1944).

Siskel and Ebert knew about those movies, but they knew many more things those mythical assailants of reputation could not. The broad perspective they brought to movies also widened the public's view of critics. They were bright Midwestern guys who were, yes, erudite enough to know their European classics as well as the comparative merits of animated Disney musicals. They also were capable of squirting venom on things they didn't like with conspicuous panache.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But their warm manner, open-ended aesthetics and companionable personalities helped viewers understand that criticism wasn't always about being, well, critical. It was a way of seeing the world, of thinking your way through something you otherwise took for granted. Their approach made criticism not only less threatening and formidable, but it also made critical thinking seem accessible, even, well, friendly.

HLN: Favorite Roger Ebert quotes

Siskel accurately rated Ebert the better prose stylist of the pair. Certainly, he was the more celebrated writer, having been the first movie reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, in 1975. As idiosyncratic as his style could be (rakish and puckish when he felt mischievous; oracular and didactic when he felt messianic), he was never conspicuously out for blood the way Simon Cowell, the serpentine, post-millennial, popular prototype of a critic, often seemed to be when assessing talent on TV.

His annual movie yearbooks exhibited his witty, humane approach to reviewing and to celebrity interviews, which somehow retained his personal touch even in later years as publicists tightened their control over one-on-one access to actors and directors.

2007: Roger Ebert's battle with cancer
Richard Roeper: Glad Ebert is at peace
Roger Ebert's influence and legacy
Moore says he owes his career to Ebert

He was never shy about showing off his knowledge of movie history, but he also never made it seem like a closed shop, open only to a favored few. He wanted more readers to like better movies. And he carried out his mission through a website that became as much a trendsetter for other Internet venues as the Siskel-and-Ebert model became for point-counterpoint TV panel shows.

One sensed Ebert's enjoyment at being a role model for movie geeks who wanted to get their own aesthetic values aired on the Web. As with his late partner, Ebert worked at putting on no airs. He seemed less like a snooty aesthete than a regular guy who just happened to know a little more about movies than anyone else in the neighborhood and set up a little corner stand to talk about them. If, as is often remarked, everybody's a critic, then Roger Ebert was one of the crucial forces responsible for empowering everybody to believe they're critics.

Remembering Roger Ebert

This may annoy those who remain averse to the idea of criticism itself. But Ebert, who also used his blog for occasional political or social commentary, would probably reply by saying that, if anything, there aren't enough people engaging in critical thinking when it comes to matters affecting their own lives.

And by "critical," I doubt very much that Ebert would have meant a position of carping or complaining or even cutting-down-to-size so much as a state of heightened perception, of being open enough to the possibility that whatever you're looking at or listening to may not be what it seems -- or should be.

As the lights went down one last time, Ebert would have loved it if all those people sitting in the dark and hoping for the best understood that his approach to movies was big enough, openhearted enough to embrace far more than the movies he'd loved all his life.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT