Apparently, Roger Ebert is one of those rather unfortunate blokes whose value to rest of us isn't tallied fully until his days are o'er. The elder statesmen of movie criticism died last week, creating lavish reviews of his life's contributions that seem to rank him with our world's most beloved citizens. As for me and my house, I didn't adore him, but I'll admit that whenever I looked for a fast and thoughtful movie review, I clicked on Roger Ebert.
Who was always, always there. Sheer ubiquity may be part of the reason why he was both so deeply regarded and seldom noticed. He didn't make headlines, didn't have a scandalous life (that I know of), rarely made Entertainment Tonight or People even though movies--and the celebrities who haunt them--were his stock in trade. He wasn't handsome, spent most of his pre-cancer life rather darlingly overweight, and, sporting horn-rims, seemed bookish but never really scholarly and almost terminally nerdy.
He was, as some have said, a real journalist, someone who embodied the brainpower of the gown, but never left town. And he was dedicated, prolific to a fault; in the final year of his life, he wrote more reviews than he had in any other stretch. He loved movies, and many, many of us loved to know what he thought of whatever is opening this week at the multi-plex.
There are those who say his passing marks the end of an era because he was himself an institution, a standard, the kind of voice that you'd better know around the water-cooler. In that way, he belonged to the old guard. Once upon a time in America the were three networks, and, come 9:00 p.m., most of all us enjoyed the same TV meal. That world is gone--cable destroyed it and the internet made sure it was forever dead. Our media world is an immense grapefruit blessed with infinite sections. We watch what we want to watch, dang it.
Once upon a time, there existed in pop music, a real Top Ten because the pop stations in every city played the same menu of hits. That world is gone. Once upon a time, an entire country devoured Look magazine. I'm not sure it even exists anymore. Today, the only magazines that make it are those who specialize--readers who can't get enough of WWF or landscapes or vegan cooking. A day or two ago was Hugh Hefner's birthday; if there's still a Playboy magazine, no one really cares because bare breasts lurk somewhere beneath every computer screen.
Today, the consumer reigns; freedom is all-in-all. We watched just about all of Netflix's history-making series House of Cards in just a couple of weekends. Now we're on a Wallender kick, the Swedish version (much better than its English counterpart). We watch nothing else, and we watch it without commercials breaks and when we want it, not when some network mogul thinks we should.
Roger Ebert, some think, was the last of the old guard, a single voice on media matters, a man whose word on a movie created a box office or broke it. Roger Ebert was everyone's Roger Ebert.
I suppose there are two takes on such a theory--one is lament. Woe and woe and woe--Ebert's passing means the end of brotherhood in America.
Don't know if I buy that. I'm enough of a capitalist to say that Ebert wasn't simply a product of his time; he also created his omnipresence by thoughtful criticism, by keeping his options open, and by sheer hard work. In that sense, his life models an American spirit that hasn't been eclipsed by the radical changes in our "media environment." It can still be done and he did it.
That too, I suppose, is a reason for the chorus of admiration created by our own sudden and sad realization that that decisive thumb of his, up or down, is no longer here to rely on.
For just such an interesting eulogy, check out the NY Times' high regard here.