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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT